Medicines from the Soil: Actinomycetes

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)

While many people recognize the important duties that soil performs in our everyday lives—nourishing plants, filtering ground and surface water and providing a foundation for our homes and offices—most do not realize that soil has also served as an important source of commonly used antibiotics.

Soil is indeed almost a perfect laboratory for the creation of natural medicines. Soil contains a wide array of tiny microhabitats that creates an enormous variation in the appearance and survival strategies of soil microbes. This diverse group of microbes, of which there are billions in an average teaspoon of soil, must then compete with one another for every available nourishing piece of organic matter. Through the lens of a microscope, scientists have observed this fracas and realized that the methods microbes use to subdue other microbes in the soil can be adapted to fight infections in the human body.

The pioneering work behind the discovery of soil-derived antibiotics was performed by Dr. Selman Waksman. In fact, it was Dr. Waksman who coined the term antibiotic to describe the focus of his research. Dr. Waksman was a Russian immigrant who came to the United States in 1911 to study agriculture at Rutgers University. After receiving a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California and becoming a naturalized citizen, he returned to Rutgers to become a lecturer of soil microbiology and a microbiologist at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. He later became a full professor and used his position to study an order of soil bacteria called the actinomycetes. Actinomycetes seemed to compete for food in the soil by secreting compounds that were harmful to rival bacteria, thus keeping them away. Dr. Waksman realized that if he could identify and isolate these compounds, he might be able to use them to combat human infections.

Indeed, starting with the discovery of actinomycin in 1940 until his retirement in 1958, Dr. Waksman and his students derived 22 different antibiotic compounds from actinomycetes. Three of the antibiotics — actinomycin, neomycin and streptomycin — became commonly used.

Actinomycin, the first antibiotic isolated by Dr. Waksman, is used sparingly as an anti-tumor drug (it is highly toxic) and frequently as an investigative tool for cell biologists. Neomycin is an extremely common antibiotic that is found in many skin ointments such as Neosporin®, as well as numerous treatments for eye and ear infections. Streptomycin was the first practical treatment for tuberculosis.

While working at Rutgers, Dr. Waksman was also hired as a consultant to the Merck pharmaceutical company. A share of the royalties from patents held by Merck on Waksman’s antibiotics and other medicines went back to Rutgers University and helped to establish a fellowship in the Department of Soils. Dr. Waksman convinced Merck to license out streptomycin to other manufacturers and used the profits to found the Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers, which was renamed the Waksman Institute of Microbiology after his death. As a result of his work and charity, Dr. Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952. He is the only soil scientist ever to have received that honor.

Looking to the soil for antibiotics did not stop with Dr. Waksman’s retirement. Vancomycin, an antibiotic isolated in 1956 from a species of actinomycete found in Indian and Indonesian soils, is extremely powerful and the current last line of defense for the treatment of bacterial infections. However, as with all other antibiotics, strains of bacteria resistant to vancomycin recently have been discovered. This means that some bacteria are now impervious to all known treatments. This is a scary reality, but rest assured that scientists are already at work in the soil, trying to find the microbe that will provide the next miracle medicine.

Some of the data for this article was provided by the Nobel e-Museum, Pfizer corporation, the Bureau of Land Management and Brady, N. and Weil R. The Nature and Property of Soils: 12th Edition. 1999. Prentice Hall, Inc., Saddle River, NJ

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