Research findings open door to easier antibiotic production

Fabiana Torreao

A University researcher might have found a key element to quicker and cheaper production of antibiotics and other drugs.
Microbiology associate professor David Sherman and graduate student Yongquan Xue found that soil bacteria produce a wide variety of antibiotic compounds, rather than a single model as was previously thought.
“Now that we understand how nature does it, we can develop new antibiotics from genetically engineered organisms,” Sherman said. “Nature has taught us exactly how to do it.”
Their discovery means pharmaceutical companies can more easily produce a variety of compounds to fight mutating microbes, which cause a number of diseases.
“It gives us a much greater flexibility to know about these different types,” Sherman said. “That’s the beauty of discovery, just thinking about what we can now do.”
Sherman affirms the immediate impact of his discovery on the pharmaceutical industry.
However, the impact on the public might not be as soon.
“There would be years down the road before there would be a clinical application on this,” said Teri Charest, a spokeswoman for the University’s Academic Health Center.
For more than 50 years, soil bacteria have produced some of the most important drugs, providing cures for tuberculosis, strep throat and other diseases.
Although Sherman focused on antibiotics, soil bacteria produce molecules that have various types of biological functions, such as cholesterol-lowering agents and anti-cancer agents.
“They have played a huge role over the last years and saved many lives,” Sherman said.
These drugs attach themselves to the disease, causing germs to attack them but presenting no harm to human cells.
Bacteria produce such drugs as a defense mechanism to kill other microbes that approach them, Sherman said.

Fabiana Torreao covers the St. Paul campus and can be reached at (612) 627-4080.