Edge Hill microbiologists are hoping to discover how bacteria in soil makes antibiotics, so they can be genetically modified to make more antibiotics in a laboratory setting.

Dr Lorena Fernández-Martínez at Edge Hill University is beginning three-years of research* to uncover how harmless bacteria (Streptomyces) make many antibiotics in soil.

Yet, when these bacteria are grown under laboratory conditions only one or two antibacterial compounds are usually found.

Lorena will examine Streptomyces bacteria grown in soil and use RNA sequencing, a technique used to identify which genes are being expressed under a particular growth condition, to find out why and how antibiotics are made in the soil. She said:

“The increase in antibiotic resistance has resulted in an urgent need for new, clinically useful antibiotics. Most of the antibiotics used in medicine are produced by a genus of harmless bacteria called Streptomyces, which is abundant in all soil environments.

“Yet when these species are grown under laboratory conditions, only one or two antimicrobial compounds are usually detected. This is because most of these antibiotic gene clusters appear dormant (i.e. not expressed) under laboratory conditions.

“The fact Streptomyces species maintain these intact antibiotic gene clusters in their genomes suggest the products are useful in nature, probably to attack competitor microorganisms in the harsh soil environments.

“By identifying how these antibiotics are made by Streptomyces in soil we hope to be able to genetically modify them to produce more of these antibiotics in laboratory and industrial fermentation conditions.”

She added:

“Using RNA sequencing we will be able to see what genes are expressed under soil conditions to identify gene candidates involved in the production of particular antibiotics. We will then genetically manipulate the bacteria to see if these genetic changes increase production of the antibiotic compound in the lab.

“This will allow us to generate variants of these Streptomyces strains to be able to produce higher levels of antibiotics under laboratory conditions, and it might lead to the identification of much needed new clinically relevant antimicrobial compounds.

* This project is funded by BBSRC Grant Ref: BB/S016651/1