Microorganisms in Our Guts May Help Drug Development

Many drugs used today are not synthetic, but in fact originate from plants and microorganisms, including soil and marine bacteria that are well known for their prolific chemistry. These drugs include antibiotics; the entire drug class of statins, or high-cholesterol drugs, cultured from mold in rice; sirolimus, an immunosuppressant drug used to prevent organ transplant failures isolated from soil on Easter Island; and doxorubicin, an anticancer drug also isolated from soil.

Unfortunately, conventional drug discovery methods are notoriously slow and yield limited results. Bacteria are cultured and then each strain is tested. In addition, previous research has indicated a gap between the small number of natural products each strain makes when cultured and the large number of drug producing genes in each genome. This discrepancy is not well understood, but scientists believe it may be due to the artificial conditions of lab culture.

Recent developments, however, may increase the efficiency in microbial product discovery. One lab’s novel algorithm can detect bacterial genome sequences for drug-producing genes. Researchers utilizing this approach discovered that a large number of drug-producing genes can be found in the human gut microbiome, which was not previously known to produce biologically active microorganisms. In addition, other novel techniques have been developed from research in synthetic biology. A set of drug-producing genes can now be “refactored” in a way that greatly increases the likelihood that the genes can be expressed in an alternative, lab-friendly host.

This new research indicates potential for drugs developed from the microbiome.

One method would be to systematically mine the microbiome for new medicines, which would be based upon the recent discovery of the prolific human microbiome.

Another method would utilize microorganisms as drugs themselves within an artificial microbial community. Surprisingly, fecal transplants are remarkably safe and effective. If a well-studied community were used instead of bacteria, these treatments hold possibility for treatment of specific conditions. These methods may hold potential for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and even metabolic disorder treatments. Our microbes may be the most prolific source of novel treatment for chronic disease.


Fischbach, Michael. "New Drugs May Come from Microbes in Our Guts."Scientific American. 3 Mar. 2015. Web. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-drugs-may-come-from-microbes-in-our-guts/>.

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