A new antibiotic extracted from soil bacteria can kill a huge range of disease-causing microbes, and so far, no resistance has been detected in the exposed bacteria. If resistance does build up, it’ll likely take several decades to emerge. The findings are published in Nature this week.

In a global public health crisis, antibiotic resistance is spreading among pathogenic microbes faster than researchers can develop new compounds for us to combat them. In hospitals, MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), for example, causes deadly bloodstream infections.

In the hunt for new antimicrobial products, a large international team led by Kim Lewis of Northeastern University screened 10,000 compounds isolated from previously uncultured soil bacteria. These valuable resources, which were overmined by the 1960s, were previously considered “unculturable” because they don’t adapt well to life in a petri dish. So Lewis and colleagues developed what they call iChip, which sorts individual bacterial cells into single chambers, and after the device is buried in the ground, several molecules are allowed to diffuse into the iChip, Nature News explains. This allows the bacteria to thrive in a more natural setting. “Essentially we’re tricking the bacteria,” Lewis tells Los Angeles Times. “They start growing and form colonies.”

They discovered a compound — called teixobactin, extracted from Eleftheria terrae — that causes the breakdown or prevents the synthesis of bacterial cell walls. In tests with mice, teixobactin has shown to be very lethal against bacteria including Staphylococcus aureus, TB-causing Mycobacterium tuberculous, and Clostridium difficile, which causes inflammation of the colon.

An existing antibiotic called vancomycin (used to kill C. difficile) operates in a similar way, and it took 30 years for bacteria to become resistant to it. The team thinks it’ll take even longer for genetic resistance to teixobactin to emerge. Clinical trials could start in two years.

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