In Search of Antibiotics From the Soil

    Biology students at Southern have joined the quest to find new antibiotics at a time when an increase in drug-resistant bacteria threatens the lives and health of the public.

    SCSU is participating in the Small World Initiative, an international undergraduate research collaborative, designed to help address the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics through the discovery of antibiotics from soil bacteria. More than five dozen colleges and universities – most of which are in the United States — are taking part in the program spearheaded by Jo Handelsman, a Yale professor who was appointed by President Barack Obama last year to the position of associate director for science in The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    A total of 32 SCSU students took soil samples during the 2015 spring semester from locations around Connecticut. The students then examined the samples for bacteria that were able to kill other bacteria. The chemicals from those attacking bacteria were then extracted and tested.

    “We already have had a good deal of success in that more than half of our students were successful in finding bacteria that killed other bacteria, and then successfully extracted the chemicals from them. In other words, they have found antibiotic-producing bacteria,” said Elizabeth Lewis Roberts, SCSU assistant professor of biology. Roberts teaches the biology course that is part of the Small World Initiative.

    “The next step will involve testing those samples further to determine whether they are antibiotics that already exist, or are brand new,” she added. “We hope to conduct that testing during the next year. I am optimistic that we will find new antibiotics, but obviously various levels of testing will be needed in the years ahead to see if they can be used medically.”

    John D’Alessandro, a senior biology major and resident of Brookfield, said the project has generated considerable excitement. “It’s a hands-on type of lab course that creates a lot of enthusiasm. There is a real need to find new alternatives to the existing antibiotic supply and it’s exciting to be part of that effort.”

    Roberts applied to participate in the program and received approval last year. The biology course that is part of the Small World Initiative is scheduled to be taught again in the spring 2016 semester.