As harmful bacteria increase their resistance to conventional antibiotics, the clock ticks on one of modern medicine’s greatest achievements: the ability to cure infection. Researchers around the world are searching for solutions, and one of them, biochemist Russell Kerr, is looking in an unexpected place — the muddy sediments of Arctic lakes, ponds and tidal flats.
Kerr runs the Marine Natural Products Lab at the University of Prince Edward Island. His team is seeking to discover new natural products from microbes. “Natural products are crucial to modern medicine,” he explains. “Microbes produce many of them — 75 per cent of antibiotics come from bacteria — and there’s a constant need to identify new species that might be sources.” Given the correlation between biodiversity and natural product diversity, Kerr’s group has worked to assemble a large group of microbes from very diverse habitats. Conventional wisdom says biodiversity is greatest in the tropics, but for microbes, the pristine Arctic is comparable. And given that the Arctic is much less explored than the tropics, it is an ideal place for bioprospecting. Arctic microbes, which can survive extreme conditions including severe cold and scouring from ice, could produce substances that are as out of the ordinary as the microbes themselves.
Kerr searches for new microbes in Nunavut with help from the Nunavut Research Institute and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), the organization that administers the Nunavut Inuit land claim. “We’re working closely with NTI,” explains Kerr. “They became interested once they saw the potential of this research and the possible economic benefits.”
Inuit trained in sampling methods by Kerr’s microbiologists collect marine and lake sediments in Iqaluit, Resolute Bay and Cambridge Bay. “We rely on local people to decide where to collect,” says Kerr. “They’re the experts on the habitats; they know the lakes, they know when and where extreme low tides that expose more of the beach occur. The Nunavut Research Institute in Iqaluit takes care of the initial processing of the samples and then sends them on to our lab to be purified and analysed.”
Kerr is thrilled by the results so far. “We’ve been finding unusual microbes. One third of them are new to science. We’ve got new species and possibly new families — new bacteria, new fungi. We screen them to see whether they produce natural products that are also new to science, and we’ve had some exciting results. We’ve discovered a new microbe that makes a powerful antifungal product.”
Kerr’s search for beneficial products from Arctic microbes is still in its early stages, but it is getting attention. A major international partner is interested in the newly discovered antifungal agent, and patents are now being filed. This, says Kerr, may be just the tip of the iceberg. “We’re just beginning to grasp the significance of the Arctic in terms of the potential, not only for radically new antibiotics, but also for new cancer drugs and other medicines.”
It may well be that one day doctors will prescribe medications with origins in the astonishingly diverse microbial life of Arctic lakes, ponds and tidal flats.