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Earlier this month, scientists had found a new antibiotic, the first in 30 years, called teixobactin, from a sample of dirt in New England.
Earlier this month, scientists had found a new antibiotic, the first in 30 years, called teixobactin, from a sample of dirt in New England.

Cancer drugs may be mined from soil

Scientists have analysed soil from beaches, forests and deserts after inviting the public to submit samples as part of a citizen science effort

ith a looming crisis of antibiotic resistance threatening the future of the world, scientists from the Rockefeller University in New York have identified hotspots across five continents to mine unexploited antibiotic and anti-cancer drugs.

The scientists have analysed soil from beaches, forests and deserts after inviting the public to submit samples as part of a citizen science effort called Drugs from Dirt. For this study, 185 samples were taken from rainforests, temperate forests, deserts and beaches in the US, China, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Australia and South Africa.

Earlier this month, scientists had found a new antibiotic, the first in 30 years, called teixobactin, from a sample of dirt in New England.

“Uncultured bacteria from the environment could provide a dazzling array of new molecules, many of which could become new medicines," said lead author and postdoctoral fellow Zachary Charlop-Powers from the Rockefeller University in a statement.

The scientists are aiming to build a world map of chemicals produced by microbes which would be similar to Google Earth or other world maps. They have urged the public to collect more samples from unique environments such as caves, hot springs, islands and city parks by continuing with the citizen science movement.

The team compared environmentally derived DNA to DNA from lab-grown bacteria that were capable of making more than 400 natural compounds. The analysis disclosed soils rich in important gene clusters.

In New Mexico, the scientists found clusters similar to those that produce epoxamicin, which is a natural molecule used for recently approved anti-cancer agents. In samples from Brazil, genes were found that may be able to make new versions of bleomycin, an anti-cancer agent listed on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines.

Across the American southwest, they identified soil samples predicted to contain bacteria that make rifamycin-like antibiotics, which is a key antibiotic used in the treatment of tuberculosis, but is facing drug resistance.

The scientists were also able to identify hotspots for biosynthetic dark matter, which are gene clusters new to science. Most of the antibiotics in clinical use today are isolated from soil bacteria, but the yield of new drugs is low because the same cultivated bacteria are discovered over and over again.

“Based on the historical success of natural products as therapeutics, biosynthetic dark matter is likely to hold enormous potential for biomedicine," said Sean Brady, head of the Laboratory of Genetically Encoded Small Molecules at the Rockefeller University. “We hope that efforts to map nature’s microbial and chemical diversity will result in the discovery of both completely new medicines and better versions of existing medicines."

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