A soil bacterium helps penicillin counter germ resistance


In Illinois, a common soil bacterium may hold the key to preserving the germ-killing power of penicillin. Antibiotics were mass produced during World War II to treat Allied soldiers and later civilians; but decades of widespread use has enabled some germs to develop resistance to it.

One strategy to counter this resistance comes from soil-dwelling members of the bacterial group Streptomyces. These bacteria secrete a compound called tunicamycin to keep rival bacteria from reaching choice resources, like rotting plant material.  This includes dispatching germs like the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, which causes infection in humans and animals.

Tunicamycin works by forming holes in the cell walls of encroaching bacteria, causing them to burst open and die. Agricultural Research Service scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture devised a method to retool the compound so that it poses little to no danger to human or animal cells but can still kill germs.