Dr Rita Monson, Senior Tutor at Churchill College, is part of an international team of researchers that has discovered a new antifungal antibiotic. A recently published paper represents a decade of work between many different researchers, leading to the discovery of new antibiotic, solanimycin.
The discovery represents a decade of work across research groups working across scientific disciplines: from yeast genetics, natural product chemistry to bacteriology. Their findings originated whilst studying the emerging plant pathogenic bacteria Dickeya solani. This bacteria was originally discovered in 2009, quickly spreading around the globe and decimating agricultural crops. Given its rapidly emergency agricultural importance, researchers (initially based in the Biochemistry Department in Cambridge) wanted to learn why the organism was successful in outcompeting its competition. Dr Monson and her main colleague, Dr Matilla found that the bacteria harboured many genetic islands which encoded proteins likely responsible for different types of antibiotics. It has been suggested that this gives Dickeya solani a fitness advantage over its competitors. One of these antibiotics turned out to be novel and the team of researchers named it solanimycin. Further work since then has shown that solanimycin is capable of targeting fungal cells whilst leaving animal cells or bacteria untouched.
Solanimycin has been found to be produced by a range of plant pathogenic bacteria, and is effective against a number of crop-killing fungi – and may also help treat human pathogenic fungi like Candida albicans.
Antimicrobial resistance is a major challenge facing the medical profession worldwide as organisms have adapted to widespread use of antibiotics, and our existing antibiotics are no longer effective. Additionally, no new classes of antibiotic have been discovered since the 1980s. Thus, research into new antibiotics, such as the serendipitous discovery of solanimycin are a welcome step in the right direction. Dr Monson reports that the next important step will be to adapt solanimycin into a pharmaceutically available antibiotic, this is expected to take between 15-20 years. Thus, there remain many challenges ahead.