It’s no secret that New York City is a hotbed for all kinds of bacteria, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A recent study by Rockefeller University has discovered that microbes found in the city could actually be used to fight against disease. Researchers took samples of dirt from various NYC parks and found “numerous therapeutically relevant small molecules” that could potentially be used as medicine to combat multiple health issues from fighting off viruses to killing tumor cells.
Sean F. Brady, the Evnin Associate Professor and head of Rockefeller’s Laboratory of Genetically Encoded Small Molecules worked with a team of researchers, along with the nonprofit Natural Areas Conservancy and five high school students participating in the University’s Science Outreach Program, to investigate the genetic makeup of NYC dirt. The 275 samples of topsoil collected from various NYC parks showed that the soil is “crammed with competing microbes”, making it a rich source of microbe-derived medicines. In fact, according to the study, one single sample from Prospect Park contained genes with some 25 molecules that could potentially be used in antibiotics and other types of medicines.
These types of “competing microbes” have long been used to create medicines. However, only a small fraction of these bacteria can be grown in laboratories, limiting the ability to harness their full potential, which is why scientists at Rockefeller Univesity decided to take their studies directly to local dirt. “By sequencing and analyzing genes within soil samples, we found the genetic instructions for making a wide range of natural products that have the potential to become treatments for various conditions, from cancer to bacterial or fungal infections, or that are already being used as drugs,” explains Brady.
Researchers involved in the study point out that it’s not necessarily the amount of bacteria in NYC soil that is important, but the abundance of unfamiliar genes found. “Less than one percent of molecule-encoding sequences matched up to the known genes to which we compared them,” says first author Zachary Charlop-Powers, a postdoctoral fellow in Brady’s lab. “Similar efforts in soil collected elsewhere have also shown that novel molecule-encoding sequences vastly outnumber those we recognize. This suggests there are many as yet-unidentified genes out there, and among these, some are likely to have potentially useful biological activity.”
What does all of this mean? The study shows that the types of bacteria often collected from isolated areas around the world to be used as antibiotics, antifungals, and anticancer agents can sometimes also be found in your local NYC park.
Images via Rockefeller University, Natural Areas Conservancy and Drugs from Dirt