New Life from Black Water

Forget about clear, pristine waters. The real action for some scientists is in dark swamps where black stained water has the acidity of vinegar. While such places might seem inhospitable to life, they provide OSU scientists with a trove of potential candidates for new antibiotics.

In the College of Pharmacy, researchers are screening hundreds of microorganisms from the Black Water Ecosystem on the island of Borneo. Their goal: new compounds to fight tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

“Indonesia is a real hot spot for biodiversity,” says Mark Zabriskie, a professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Zabriskie and his colleagues Phil Proteau and Taifo Mahmud are studying compounds produced by bacteria and fungi. The scientists look for ways to enhance the antibacterial properties of these compounds through genetic engineering and/or chemical modification.

Work on the Indonesian microbes got under way in 2005 when Dwi Andreas Santosa, director of the Indonesian Center for Biodiversity and Biotechnology, brought 750 samples of microorganisms to OSU. Santosa has isolated about 10,000 microbial species, many of which may be new to science.

In the past, scientists have scoured soils and other environments for antibacterial compounds, but the frequency of finding novel drug leads has been slowed by difficulties in culturing unique microbes in the laboratory. The Black Water Ecosystem is significant because so much of its microbial life is poorly studied.

The OSU researchers and their students are culturing the microbes and determining the antibacterial potential of each one. They also compare promising species to known microorganisms by focusing on a small DNA fragment, a kind of molecular bar code. It tells them if a species is already known and whether it is likely to produce novel natural products.

“Ultimately, as we go through this screening process, we’ll find new compounds and then go after the genes to study how a promising antibiotic is made and see if we can get analogs produced by genetic manipulation and chemical modification,” says Zabriskie. By documenting the potential for new antibiotics, the researchers hope to attract grant funding that would allow them to understand the chemistry leading to new drugs.