Access keys

Skip to content Accessibility Home News, events and publications Site map Search Privacy policy Help Contact us Terms of use

BBSRC Business

Connecting our science with industry, policy makers and society

Spring summer 2017

New antibiotic from bacteria found on an ant could beat MRSA

Copyright: iStock
News from: University of East Anglia
News from: The John Innes Centre

A new antibiotic, produced by bacteria found on a species of African ant, is very potent against antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’ like MRSA according to scientists.

Copyright: JIC/UEA
Barrie Wilkinson, JIC (left) and Matt Hutchings, UEA (right). Copyright: JIC/UEA

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the John Innes Centre (JIC) which is strategically funded by BBSRC have discovered a new member of the Streptomyces bacteria family, isolated from the African fungus-growing plant-ant Tetraponera penzigi. They have named the new species Streptomyces formicae and the antibiotics formicamycins, after the Latin formica, meaning ant.

Lab tests have shown these new antibiotics are effective against methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococci (VRE), bacteria which are resistant to a number of common antibiotics and can cause life-threatening infections.

Professor Barrie Wilkinson from JIC said: “Our findings highlight the importance of searching as-yet under-explored environments, which, when combined with recent advances in genome sequencing and editing, enables the discovery of new species making natural product antibiotics which could prove invaluable in the fight against AMR.

Vachellia drepanolobium nest. Copyright: Kooyman/Wikimediacommons
Plant-ants provide protection from larger herbivores. Copyright: Kooyman/Wikimedia commons

Almost all of the antibiotics currently in clinical use come from a group of bacteria called actinomycetes that were isolated from soil between 40-80 years ago, the ‘golden age’ of antibiotic discovery. Inappropriate use of these antibiotics since then has led to widespread antimicrobial resistance (AMR), where disease-causing bacteria and fungi have become resistant to one or more antibiotics.

Professor Matt Hutchings from UEA said: “We have been exploring the chemical ecology of protective symbioses formed between antibiotic-producing bacteria and fungus-growing insects to better understand how these associations are formed and explore them as a new source of anti-infective drugs.

“Kenyan plant-ants live in symbiosis with thorny acacia trees. They live and breed in domatia – which are hollowed out structures which the plant evolved to house them – and grow fungus in them for food. In return, they protect the plants from large herbivores including elephants, which won't eat plants covered in ants.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

Reference: Formicamycins, antibacterial polyketides produced by Streptomyces formicae isolated from African Tetraponera plant-ants. Chem. Sci., 2017; DOI: 10.1039/C6SC04265A.

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £473 million in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes.