Soil study could help unearth new drugs

Fresh discoveries about how bacteria thrive could aid the quest for new drugs to fight infections, a University study shows.

Researchers have found that bugs’ ability to prosper in the earth is more complex than previously thought.

The study challenges an existing theory that bacteria can only thrive in their natural environment.

Multiple factors

Researchers say bacterial distribution is controlled by factors which may include nutrient and water content, numbers of predators and levels of competition between species.

How factors in soil interact dictates where bacteria are found and understanding them better could provide researchers with a clearer picture of how soil ecosystems function.

This could help scientists increase yields from crops and enable researchers to identify antimicrobial agents that could be developed as new antibiotics.

Bacteria in soil produce potent biological agents for defence that kill fungi and other bugs. Scientists say these can be developed as antibiotic drugs.

Thriving in soil

Researchers found that bacteria can also thrive in non-native environments.

The team collected bacteria and soil samples from a forest in Western Quebec, Canada.

They grew bacteria in soils from each of the sites sampled and found that they could prosper in a variety of different environmental conditions.

Complex ecosystem

The study casts doubt on the belief that the survival of soil bacteria is governed exclusively by the Baas Becking theory that states that bugs can only survive in their native environment.

The study, published in the journal The American Naturalist, was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Soil often gets overlooked as an ecosystem, even though it is absolutely crucial for nutrient cycling, food and fibre production and the discovery of antibiotic compounds. It is surprising how little we know about the hundreds of thousands of bacteria which ensure the functioning of this ecosystem.

Susanne KraemerSchool of Biological Sciences