View across Gobi Desert with sand in foreground and mountains in the distance.

Swansea University experts have helped identify several news species of bacteria growing in arid Asian soil which could play a key role in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

In 2019, 1.2 million people worldwide died from infections caused by bacteria resistant to current antibiotics, according to research revealed in The Lancet.

The problem of antibiotic resistance is predicted to get much worse with serious implications for what are now considered routine medical procedures, and with people dying from common, previously treatable infections. The over-use of a relatively small number of different antibiotics has led to harmful bacteria acquiring resistance to these drugs.

The majority of these antibiotics are sourced from non-motile soil bacteria called Streptomyces. Scientists are now trying to find a way of encouraging these bacteria to produce new antibiotics, the products of so-called silent or cryptic biosynthetic pathways, that could supplement the diminishing supply of effective antimicrobials currently used in medicine.

One avenue to explore is bioprospecting for new species of Streptomyces that could make different types of antibiotics. Now a collaboration between Swansea University Medical School and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Lanzhou, north-west China has discovered several new species growing in very arid soils in regions such as the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan plateau.

Professor Paul Dyson, who heads up the Swansea team, said: “I strongly believe this is a very simple strategy to be integrated in any new antibiotic discovery programme. It is another tool in our arsenal for discovering new antibiotics.”

He said this discovery, published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research, opens the door to finding much-needed new antibiotics.

Professor Dyson added that one of these new species proved interesting not only because of the antibiotics it could produce, but also because it grows much more rapidly than conventional Streptomyces.

To investigate this phenomenon, the researchers focussed on how this bacterium ‘reads’ its genetic information, and this led to the discovery of a ‘new to science’ type of transfer RNA, or tRNA.

tRNAs allow cells to translate their genetic information into all the proteins that make these cells function and grow. The new tRNA allows for much more efficient translation, allowing the genetic information to be read more speedily, underpinning the ability of the bacteria to grow quickly.

But, more importantly, when the researchers added this tRNA gene to conventional Streptomyces, not only did they produce their known antibiotics more quickly and in greater quantities, but they could now make new antibiotics – the products of the pathways that were previously silent.

Health Innovation - Swansea University Research

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