Dutch researchers employed a 'genome mining' approach to activate a group of genes in the bacterium Streptomyces coelicolor.
This led to the production of a new antibacterial compound that is effective against several bacterial strains, including Escherichia coli.
The study, by scientists at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, appears in the August issue of Microbiology.
The findings could lead to new treatments for serious diseases that are rapidly acquiring multi-drug resistance.
Streptomyces is a common soil bacterium that is well-known for its antibiotic-producing capabilities. In 2002, genomic sequencing of one Streptomyces species, S. coelicolor, revealed several groups of genes whose function was unknown.
By digging deeper and removing a molecule that specifically inactivates one of the mystery gene groups, known as cpk, the researchers in this study were able to 'awaken' the genes, to find that they produced the new antibiotic, in addition to a bright yellow pigment.
This is the first time a genome mining approach to drug discovery has been successfully used in Streptomyces.
Lead researcher Dr Eriko Takano said: "The strategy is a powerful and innovative way of searching for new antibiotic production capabilities in bacteria. As bacterial infections previously considered as mild and easily curable are suddenly becoming lethal and completely unresponsive to all existing medication, it is crucial that new antibiotics are discovered at a sufficiently rapid rate."
The same approach for 'awakening' new antibiotic production pathways could also be used to tap other micro-organisms, such as filamentous fungi, for sources of biologically active compounds. Aside from antibiotics, these compounds may include other antimicrobials or antitumour agents.
"There are several thousand other uncharacterised groups of genes that have been found recently in microbial genome sequences. This opens up a rich treasure trove of new potential drugs for clinical use," said Dr Takano.