Scientists Are Looking for Medical Cures in Toxic Waste

Scientists Are Looking for Medical Cures in Toxic Waste

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast/Shutterstock

antibiotic resistance, Mason’s team is focused on sourcing new antibiotics from the sludge. So far, they believe they are close to isolating four new strains of antibiotics from compounds produced by the microbes living in the Gowanus Canal.’ data-reactid=”18″>Chris Mason, biochemist and chief researcher at Cornell University’s Mason Laboratory, is among them. He says the organisms that thrive among the pollution could hold treatments for any number of maladies, from cancer to AIDS. Faced with the rising threat of antibiotic resistance, Mason’s team is focused on sourcing new antibiotics from the sludge. So far, they believe they are close to isolating four new strains of antibiotics from compounds produced by the microbes living in the Gowanus Canal.

“It’s completely toxic but we knew things are living in there,” says Mason. These ‘things’ are called extremophiles, and they’re incredibly important to the future of medicine.

hostile environments, places that would be a death sentence for most other life forms—deep sea vents, the Arctic, and Superfund sites.’ data-reactid=”21″>Extremophile is the name given to the kinds of (usually microscopic) creatures that thrive in Earth’s most hostile environments, places that would be a death sentence for most other life forms—deep sea vents, the Arctic, and Superfund sites.

report from the United Nations echoes that prediction.’ data-reactid=”33″>Though MRSA is actually on the decline in the U.S., a 2015 report by economist Jim O’Neill estimates annual deaths attributed to antibiotic resistance worldwide will climb to 10 million by 2050 if we don’t find new sources of antibiotics. A recent report from the United Nations echoes that prediction.

Their research focused on better understanding archaea.’ data-reactid=”37″>Other scientists have done the same with microorganisms living in other extreme places. Anna-Louise Reysenbach, an extremophile biologist at the University of Portland, and her team sequenced the DNA of microscopic organisms living in deep-sea heat vents. Their research focused on better understanding archaea.

Archaea are often classified as extremophiles. They live in places that are too hot, too dark, or too toxic for any other life to survive, like in heat vents on the ocean floor or in Superfund sites.

“They don’t just survive,” says Reysenbach. “They’re happy, they thrive.”

Archaea are one type of Gowanus Canal life (bacteria and fungi are also included) that Mason’s team analyzes. They’re important to the future of medicine mostly because we just don’t know a lot about them.

Archaea weren’t recognized by the scientific community until the late 1970s. Before that, scientists thought there were only two types of life on Earth: procaryotes, organisms that do not have a nucleus, mostly bacteria; and eucaryotes, anything with a nucleus, basically all life that is familiar to us, including humans.

Archaea were originally thought to be procaryotes, until scientists realized that bacteria that thrived in high temperatures or produced methane were genetically distinct from other procaryotes, so they designated a third category—an entirely new domain of life that we still don’t know much about. And therein lies the promise: We’ve scoured the rainforest for medicine and even the mold that grows on our food, but we still don’t know much about archaea and other extremophiles. Places like deep sea vents and Superfund sites, and the organisms that live in them, have a lot of potential simply because scientists haven’t explored them yet.

New technology like Next-Generation Sequencing allows scientists to understand these places to an extent that wasn’t possible until now. The world is experiencing a renaissance of biological discovery.

“It could have been really bad,” says Mason, referencing the looming threat of antimicrobial resistance, “but we’ve never been so equipped to address the problem.”

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