The dirt of New York City parks may seem an unlikely way to benefit modern medicine, but scientists in an Upper East Side university lab in Manhattan say they have found genes from the dirt's bacteria that could lead to use in antibiotics and anti-cancer treatments. Roselle Chen reports.
Can this dirt be potentially life saving? Researchers at The Rockefeller University in New York City have found that bacteria extracted from local parks contain genes that might "encode drug-like molecules" like antibiotics, immunosuppressants and cancer-curing agents. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. SEAN BRADY, HEAD OF THE LABORATORY OF GENETICALLY ENCODED SMALL MOLECULES AT THE ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We did a large scale screen of samples from New York looking for these genes and we were able to find many genes that we don't know what they do, but a subset of genes that we can predict would make molecules that are currently in the clinic. Almost any drug that's coming from a bacteria that was found someplace else in the world, we could identify a sequence that suggests a bug like that exists in a sample of a New York City park." (SOUNDBITE) (English) ZACH CHARLOP-POWERS, POSTDOCTORAL FELLOW AT THE LABORATORY OF GENETICALLY ENCODED SMALL MOLECULES AT THE ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Many of the molecules that we've used in the clinic have historically been isolated from organisms that have had their origin all over the world and we're able to find genetic evidence that you'd be able to find similar, or the same, gene clusters and therefore similar, or the same molecules, in New York City's park soil." The team looked at 275 soil samples taken from Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn and parks in Staten Island in the hope that locally found dirt may contain chemical novelties and could lead to new drugs. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. SEAN BRADY, HEAD OF THE LABORATORY OF GENETICALLY ENCODED SMALL MOLECULES AT THE ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Not just antibiotics, but a large number of our pharmaceutical agents, the things we use in the clinic to cure cancer, immunosuppression, anti-bacterial agents come originally from studying bacteria. And so the idea here is to guide you to not only those old molecules, but guide you to bacteria that might produce new molecules that have new activities. Almost any molecule you can think of that might have come from bacteria, so if you don't know those types of molecules, things like vancomycin, the antibiotic of last resort, we can find molecules or genes that we think would encode molecules like that. Rapamycin, immunosuppressant, we can find genes that encode molecules that look like that, or even new versions of those molecules." Humans share earth with an awful lot of bacteria - around 5 million trillion trillion of them, that's a 5 followed by 30 zeroes, according to a 1998 estimate by University of Georgia scientists. Brady says local researchers can find the same sort of bacteria in their own backyard capable of producing potential medicines like the bacteria that has been found in far-flung places like the Amazon rainforest, a great cauldron of biodiversity.