Fungi — a goldmine for pharmaceuticals?

By Chalmers University of Technology
Friday, 21 April, 2017

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology have developed a method for finding new antibiotics from fungi. The findings, recently published in the journal Nature Microbiology, could prove useful in the battle against antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotics have saved millions of lives since they were discovered around eight decades ago. However, bacteria are now becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. This could lead to simple infections becoming lethal once again. The need for new antibiotics is, therefore, urgent.

The first antibiotic to be mass-produced was penicillin, derived from Penicillium fungi. In their quest for new antibiotics, Chalmers researchers sequenced the genomes of nine different types of Penicillium species. The results were remarkable. “We found that the fungi have enormous, previously untapped, potential for the production of new antibiotics and other bioactive compounds, such as cancer medicines,” said Jens Christian Nielsen, a PhD student at the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering.

The researchers scanned the genomes of 24 different kinds of fungi to find genes responsible for the production of various bioactive compounds, like antibiotics. More than 1000 pathways were discovered, showing immense potential for fungi to produce a large variety of natural and bioactive chemicals that could be used by pharmaceutical companies.

“It’s important to find new antibiotics in order to give physicians a broad palette of antibiotics, existing ones as well as new ones, to use in treatment. This will make it harder for bacteria to develop resistance,” said Jens Christian Nielsen.

“Previous efforts to find new antibiotics have mainly focused on bacteria. Fungi have been hard to study — we know very little of what they can do — but we do know that they develop bioactive substances naturally, as a way to protect themselves and survive in a competitive environment. This made it logical to apply our research tools to fungi.”

Researchers could now look at the production of the new yanuthone compound. The Chalmers researchers have already drawn up a map that makes it possible to compare hundreds of genes in the continuous evaluation of bioactive products with potent drugs in sight.

Image courtesy of Jens Christian Nielsen, Chalmers University of Technology.

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