Several brown cylinder bacteria on a rough surface.

Image: Bacteria such as these Bacilli live in the soil.

Credit: ©

Written by Beth Askham

Bacteria living in soil could save our lives – if only we knew they existed. A new way of looking at soil bacteria is helping researchers discover new antibiotics.

We use antibiotics to help fight infections, such as a festering sore on your arm or a chest infection. Growing in these infections are unwelcome bacteria that your immune system is having a hard time fighting off. Antibiotics can kill the bacteria for us.

Unfortunately, infectious bacteria are becoming resistant to the antibiotics we already have. Researchers are now working hard looking for new antibiotics.

Most of the antibiotics we use today come from soil bacteria. Bacteria produce these molecules to keep other bacteria away from their turf. But we can only use antibiotics from bacteria that can be grown in the lab. These only make up a tiny proportion of all the bacteria living in soil. Most bacteria, around 99 per cent, cannot be grown outside their natural homes, be it soil or on the surface of a glacier.

To get round this problem, researchers have developed a tiny growing cell, called an iChip. It grows bacteria while keeping them in their snug soil home. They first catch a single cell and surround it with membranes that let food and water through, and then they place the whole thing back in the soil.

Using this technique, researchers have found thousands of new bacteria in soil from their own backyards! One extract from one of these bacteria is a molecule called teixobactin that might work as an antibiotic. Trials of this molecule on humans will start in a couple of years.

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