War on superbugs

The key to fighting one of the biggest threats to humanity could be found in your backyard.

Dr Jeremy Owen and Associate Professor David Ackerley in the research lab looking at a specimen in a jar

The spectre of antibiotic resistance is becoming a pressing issue, threatening to take humans back to a time when a simple cut finger could kill.

Dr Jeremy Owen and Associate Professor David Ackerley from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences have been awarded nearly $1.2 million in funding to find new antibiotics from previously untapped sources in New Zealand’s soil, lichen and marine life.

“Currently, scientists can culture less than 1 percent of bacteria that exist on Earth and this 1 percent has provided most of the antibiotics we currently use in medicine. But resistance to these antibiotics is spreading, so we need to turn to the unculturable bacteria to find new drug candidates,” says Jeremy.

“Almost any soil sample will have a lot of bacterial species that have never before been seen or examined, because you can’t grow them. You could take a scoop from your backyard and you’d probably find something interesting.”

The two scientists will use DNA sequencing and synthetic biology to discover and synthesise new drugs, allowing them to extract new molecules from bacteria that can’t be grown in the laboratory.

David says antibiotic resistance is a serious problem, with the World Health Organization comparing it to climate change in terms of threats to humanity.

“That puts in context just how dire it could be potentially. We’re faced with going back to the 1920s pre-antibiotic era where the most innocuous of wounds could potentially kill you if they became infected. This is something that everybody is going to be vulnerable to.”

The two scientists are working with Dr Rob Keyzers and Associate Professor Peter Northcote from Victoria’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences on the three-year Health Research Council of New Zealand-funded project.