Researchers led by Moeller, of Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, found a sponge thriving in the midst of dead organisms. This anomalous life amidst death raised an obvious question, says Moeller: “How is this thing surviving when everything else is dead?”
Chemical analyses of the sponge’s chemical defense factory pointed to a compound called algeferin. Biofilms, communities of bacteria notoriously resistant to antibiotics, dissolved when treated with fragments of the algeferin molecule. And new biofilms did not form.
So far, the algeferin offshoot has, in the lab, successfully treated bacteria that cause whooping cough, ear infections, septicemia and food poisoning. The compound also works on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which causes horrible infections in wounded soldiers, and MSRA infections, which wreak havoc in hospitals. “We have yet to find one that doesn’t work,” says Moeller.
And the results may not just apply to bacteria in communities. The compound is able to reprogram antibiotic-resistant bacteria that don’t form biofilms. When bacteria are treated with the compound, antibiotics that usually have no effect are once again lethal. This substance may be the first one that can restore bacterial resistance, Moeller says. “This resensitization is brand new.”
Of course, as soon as we start using this stuff in tanker-load quantities, we’re bound to turn up the one organism in the world that has a defesne against it, and then, under selection pressure, every other virulent organism will acquire the requisite coding sequence. We should be glad antibiotics still work at all…