Chilean Antarctica could hold clues for public health

Researchers on the white continent are discovering bacteria that could help fight against the superbugs plaguing hospitals.

At the end of the earth, far removed from other landmasses and frozen year-round, the desolate white continent of Antarctica is an environment so challenging few life forms can survive here. However, those that do make a home in this inhospitable place could become our best weapon to fight against the super-bacteria that are posing an ever greater threat to modern medicine.

Multi-drug resistant bacteria have evolved in response to treatment breakthroughs such as antibiotics, and can pose very serious public health risks in hospitals as well as in our food supply. In addition to chemical methods to combat these microscopic villains, scientists are championing biological methods which tend to have fewer environmental consequences.

This is where a dedicated Chilean research team comes in. Scientists from Chile’s Antarctic Institute (INACH) have been collecting different varieties of bacteria that manage to live on the southernmost continent despite the incredibly harsh climate. Researchers then study these strains with the aim of unlocking the secrets to combating the drug-resistant bacteria found in our hospitals and our food among other places.

The innovative project is titled “Peptide antimicrobials of Antarctic bacteria: synthesis and optimization for the control of pathogenic bacteria in food.” Among the pioneers working on it are researchers from the Laboratory of Genetics and Immunology (GIM) and the Curauma Biotechnology Nexus (NBC), both from the Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, with support from the Chilean Economic Development Agency (CORFO).

So far the team has identified 24 strains of Antarctic bacteria related to the to the genera Pseudomonas, Arthrobacter, Pedobacter, Actinobacteria and Streptomyces. The majority of these specimens demonstrated the potential to combat strains of multidrug-resistant bacteria found in hospitals across the world.

The next step for the researchers is to isolate the aspects of these newly discovered bacteria that are fighting the dangerous strains and find a way to incorporate these elements into real life efforts to combat “superbugs.”

This is not the first time innovative Chileans have found an unexpected use for the bacteria at the edge of the world. Last year two inspiring high school students were awarded the 2013 Stockholm Junior Water Prize for their research of Antarctica bacteria that could provide an environmentally friendly solution to oil spill cleanup and other responses to water catastrophes.