Researchers Use Insect Antibiotics In Battle Against Bacteria
September 2, 2013

Researchers Use Insect Antibiotics In Battle Against Bacteria

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Scientists are locked in an epic struggle with bacteria – with some of the tiny microbes displaying an increased resistance to antibiotics year after year.

Researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, England are making major strides in the battle against bacteria through their study of stick insects and leafcutter ants, according to a new report to air on the BBC current affairs series Inside Out.

“This research is at the very early stage but it is exciting to investigate new solutions to the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance,” said Katarzyna Ignasiak, a JIC researcher.

In conjunction with scientists at University of East Anglia, also in Norwich, JIC researchers have already identified new antibiotic properties of stick insects that have demonstrated resistance to toxins and bacteria they are not naturally exposed to, according to BBC News.

"This indicates that there is a general mechanism at work,” Tony Maxwell, head of biological chemistry at JIC, told the British news agency. "If we can unravel that then it opens the way to understanding antibiotic resistance and this will enable us to build a chemical strategy against it.”

"It will also help us build into new antibiotics a mechanism to counter any resistance,” he added.

In its native environment, the stick insect tends to feed on eucalyptus, which may contain toxins that have antibacterial properties – researchers said. The digestive tracts of these insects were found to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria – an indication that these insects were exposed to antibiotics via their food.

Approximately half of the antibiotics currently being used were discovered in soil bacteria and scientists continue to comb through dirt to look for new life-saving drugs.

Besides working with stick insects, the Norwich researchers are also investigating the antibacterial properties surrounding leafcutter ants that were found to have a substance on their bodies with promising antibacterial properties.

South American leafcutter ants that are living within the insectary at the JIC are known for walking single-file through the rainforest while carrying leaf sections sometimes twice their size. The leaf sections are taken underground where they are allowed to decay, eventually forming a garden of fungus. To help cultivate their desired fungus and keep it free of unwanted microbes and parasites, the ants foster the growth of antibiotic-producing bacteria on their own bodies.

One antibiotic found on the ants is similar to a medicinal antifungal already in use. However, the ants’ antibiotic is 300 times more soluble in water – potentially making it much more useful.

The work comes as UK officials have been emphasizing the importance of locating new antibiotics for the battle against disease and infection.

"If we don't take action now, antibiotic resistance could mean that widely used treatments for diseases including cancer and common operations such as hip replacements could become impossible,” David Walker, UK's deputy chief medical officer, told the BBC. "If we don't take action now we could face a situation when some common infections become untreatable."

British officials have signaled an interest in committing additional funds to the effort.

"For now there is no further details on what it will entail and how much money it might involve - or indeed when it will come into play,” Walker noted.