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article imageDigging in the dirt: Citizen Scientists hunt for new medicines

By Tim Sandle     May 30, 2014 in Science
Microbes are a rich source of medicines and it is thought that many life-saving compounds are still awaiting discovery. To help trace possible candidates, citizen scientists have been called on to help.
Examining microorganisms to see if they can unlock the key to new medicines is a slow and complex process. Researchers must know where to look to find promising bacteria, and how to get them to grow in the laboratory. After that potentially valuable molecules must be extracted and tested.
One scientist is trying new ways to speed up this process. Sean Brady's Laboratory of Genetically Encoded Small Molecules are using genomic sequencing technology to examine different microorganisms that live in habitats like soil without having to grow the microbes in the laboratory. They are using this information to map out the location of gene that might eventually encode novel antibiotics.
So far the laboratory has examined over 100 soil samples from two U.S. regions, looking for genetic sequences that encode certain molecule-making abilities. They are using the data to create microbial maps, which they hope will predict which regions are the more likely to contain appropriate microorganisms for drug development.
To help to find more candidate microbes, Brady is asking citizen scientists to help provide soil samples from different areas across the U.S. Brady’s map helps to form the basis of where to look. The lab has set up a website: [url=http://www.drugsfromdirt.org]www.drugsfromdirt.org and after signing up, citizen scientists will receive information about how to collect and ship samples. The process is simple, according to Dr. Brady: "Take a sandwich bag, a spoon or a trowel, and dump a couple of spoonfuls in the bag and ship it to us."
The results of the first microbe-geographical survey have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is titled “Chemical-biogeographic survey of secondary metabolism in soil.”
More about Antibiotics, Bacteria, Dirt, Soil, Citizen science
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