Sci­en­tists at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity have taken a major step towards being able to grow pre­vi­ously uncul­tivable bac­teria in the lab, the poten­tial key to devel­oping a new gen­er­a­tion of highly effec­tive antibiotics.

Exam­ining bac­te­rial com­mu­ni­ties enveloping par­ti­cles of sand, the North­eastern researchers iden­ti­fied chem­i­cals — called siderophores — pro­duced by cul­tivable bac­teria that act as growth fac­tors for dis­tantly related strains of uncul­tivable bac­teria. When the two types of bac­teria were placed in close prox­imity in a Petri dish, the uncul­tivable bac­terium grew.

The finding, the cover story in the March 26 issue of the journal Chem­istry & Biology, “opens a new chapter in the century-​​old quest to access a major source of bio­di­ver­sity on the planet,” said Pro­fessor of Biology Kim Lewis, who led the research.

The dis­covery rep­re­sents the first iden­ti­fied mech­a­nism gov­erning the growth of uncul­tured bac­teria in the lab, said Lewis, who directs Northeastern’s Antimi­cro­bial Dis­covery Center (ADC). “This pro­vides us with a gen­eral approach to finding other types of growth fac­tors that will give us access to addi­tional classes of uncul­tured bacteria.”

Most antibi­otics, which treat infec­tions by killing the bac­te­rial cells or inhibiting their growth, have been dis­cov­ered from bac­teria that readily grow in the lab. But more than 99 per­cent of all species of bac­teria cannot be grown in a lab, and attempts to repli­cate these uncul­tivable bac­teria have been unsuc­cessful up until this point.

This is just the tip of the ice­berg and could lead to the devel­op­ment of new ways to treat bac­te­rial infec­tions,” said Anthony D’Onofrio, the paper’sfirst author and post­doc­toral research asso­ciate at the ADC.

Researchers from Har­vard Med­ical School col­lab­o­rated with North­eastern sci­en­tists on the project. The other North­eastern col­lab­o­ra­tors included Pro­fessor of Biology Slava Epstein; and biology research pro­fessor Eric J. Stewart, post­doc­toral research asso­ciate Eka­te­rina Gavrish and stu­dent researcher Kathrin Witt, all working in the ADC.

The Antimi­cro­bial Dis­covery Center was founded in 2006 to trans­late basic sci­ence dis­cov­eries into novel antimi­cro­bial ther­a­pies to combat biowar­fare and con­ven­tional pathogen threats. The inter­dis­ci­pli­nary center, funded by grants from the National Insti­tutes of Health, National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and Depart­ment of Energy, draws fac­ulty mem­bers from biology, chem­istry, physics and phar­ma­ceu­tical sciences.

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