Marine Scientists Exploring New Antibiotics


Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, or "superbugs," are on the rise, killing tens of thousands of people each year. As the critical need for new classes of antibiotics grows, scientists are looking for miracles in unexplored realms of the ocean. Marine microbes are an ideal potential antibiotic source because they are in constant competition for access to light, nutrients and space, according to scientists in the MARBIONC marine biotechnology research program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. These same chemicals often make excellent antibiotics because they have been evolutionarily selected for their potency and specificity in killing other microbes.

"Some of the most important antibiotics we use today have been isolated from terrestrial microbes," says Wendy Strangman, associate research professor with MARBIONC. "Our plan is to collect new species of antibiotic producing microbes from unique marine environments known as frontier habitats. In the laboratory, we will culture these new marine microbes and extract their antibiotic chemicals to use in drug testing against these lethal superbugs."

MARBIONC scientists hope to fund their groundbreaking work in a unique way with the help of a $50,000 Pepsi Refresh grant. "This will be an incredible boost for our research program," Strangman says. "Unfortunately, during difficult economic times one of the first items to be cut from federal grant programs is money for field work to collect specimens. There is very little money available for that purpose right now and that's what we need."

The Pepsi Refresh Project accepts grant proposals at its website each month from people, businesses and organizations who want to make a positive impact in their communities or in the world. Proposal amounts range from $5,000 to $250,000 and funding is based on votes from the general public. Pepsi accepts the first 1,000 submissions for the following month of voting, and then allows individuals to vote for up to 10 of their favorite ideas each day. The public can help by voting for the MARBIONC grant proposal at or texting 105313 to Pepsi (73774) every day throughout January.

On its research staff, MARBIONC has world experts in microbial culturing and antibiotic discovery. The Pepsi Refresh grant will allow these researchers to explore the largely untapped biodiversity of marine micro-environments to isolate microbes that may yield new antibiotic cures. Two-thirds of the marine microbes MARBIONIC has previously sampled have proven to be new species or new organisms that have potential as new sources of drugs. Strangman hopes to organize a trip to a research station in Belize to collect marine samples of very small organisms, such as algae. Because MARBIONC can use just a small amount of marine material to grow additional cultures in its labs, this type of collecting has very low impact on the ocean environment.

"We can collect many samples from a scoop of sand or a drop of seawater," she says.

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