Alexandra Sifferlin is a writer for TIME. She covers public health issues including infectious and chronic disease, big ideas in medicine, and breaking news.
The world is facing an epidemic of infections that no longer respond well to the drugs used to treat them—also known as super bugs. In the United States, an estimated 2 million Americans are diagnosed each year with an infection that doesn’t respond to antibiotics, and 23,000 will die from those infections. But New York and New Jersey researchers published a new paper in the journal Nature Microbiology about their hopeful discovery: a potentially new class of antibiotic that they found in dirt.
In the lab, the researchers used a method to extract, clone and sequence DNA from soil samples to see if there are genes that could produce molecules with antibiotic potential. Using their method to search through hundreds of soil samples, they discovered the new antibiotic class, called malacidins.
The researchers say that based on their research, malacidins may be able to attack and kill many types of super bugs. In early tests in rats infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the researchers found that the molecules were able to sterilize the infection area.
This is not the first time that scientists have discovered antibiotics from the soil, but it has proven difficult for researchers to identify a a bacterial species that could become a drug, as the scientists did here. However, the study of malacidins is still early, and a great deal of research still needs to be done before its potential to become a new drug is fully understood.