Sean Brady wants your soil, especially if it’s unusual. He thinks it could contain precursors to important drugs–perhaps something that treats cancer, or overcomes deadly bacteria.
“There’s this tremendous wealth of chemistry out there in the environment that could serve as drugs,” says Brady, an associate professor at Rockefeller University. “Nature is where we’ve got most of our drugs and we should think about it again.”
Brady’s Drugs from Dirt initiative aims to map soil bacterial life in all 50 states. Up to 70% of most categories of medicines are naturally derived. But such research has fallen out of favor in recent years, as pharmaceutical groups have turned to synthetic chemistry for drug development.
Since launching the project, Brady’s group has been “bombarded” with thousands of people writing in with soil offers. His team picks out the most interesting samples, then tests for DNA, which shows what micro-organisms are contained within. In nature, these microbes produce molecules that fight off dangerous bacteria, stopping it from multiplying.
Just recently, researchers at Northeastern University, in Boston, revealed a new form of antibiotic derived from a “grassy field in Maine.” The drug, called Teixobactin, is the first new antibiotic discovered in 30 years and could help fight TB and other sometimes drug-resistant infections.
“If you have an interesting soil sample that nobody has ever seen, we’d love you to contact us,” Brady says. “We have ways to find new drugs if we have the support to do it.”