Nature's path leads scientists to new antibiotic strategy

MADISON - By mimicking one of nature's own potent antimicrobial defenses, scientists may have found a new way to wage war on pathogenic bacteria.

Writing this week (April 6) in the British scientific journal Nature, a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison report the design, synthesis and evaluation of a new type of molecule that exhibits a wide spectrum of antimicrobial activity, including against two species of bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotic drugs.

The work is important because it demonstrates the feasibility of developing a new class of antibiotics that can potentially overcome the growing resistance of disease-causing bacteria to current medicines, according to UW-Madison chemistry Professor Samuel H. Gellman, an author of the new study. Moreover, the work reveals the potential of using nature as a guide to build medically important synthetic molecules that can outperform their naturally-occurring counterparts.

"Nearly all antimicrobial agents now used in clinical settings are naturally-occurring molecules, or are closely related to molecules found in nature," Gellman said. "In contrast, our new antimicrobials are very different from all molecules found in nature. The upshot of this research is that we may be on a radical new path that may lead to the rational, deliberate design of clinically useful molecules like antibiotics."

The design of the new antibacterial agents involved mimicry of naturally-occurring peptides that ward off microbial invasion.

Peptides are composed of alpha-amino acids which also are the building blocks of protein molecules and are essential to all life. In nature, peptides can be selectively toxic to invading microorganisms, forming a first line of antimicrobial defense in everything from plants to people. The natural antibiotic peptides, however, are rapidly degraded in living tissues and can be highly toxic to human cells in addition to infectious

Contact: Samuel H. Gellman
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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