According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is a serious lack of new antibiotics in development to combat the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance. A recent report indicates that only eight of the 51 new antibiotics and biological products in clinical development to treat antibiotic-resistant pathogens are innovative treatments that could add value to the current medications offered. Most of the drugs in the clinical portfolio are modifications of existing classes of antibiotics and are only short-term solutions.
For Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, general director of the World Health Organization, “antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency that will seriously endanger the progress of modern medicine. There is an urgent need for more investment in research and development to generate antibiotics capable of fighting antibiotic resistant infections”.
The search for new antibiotics initially focused on the 20th century with the production of bioactive compounds (CBA) by soil microorganisms. Subsequently the investigations were directed towards marine microorganisms. However, there is a little explored niche in the biosphere with promising results: subterranean environments. Mines and caves are an excellent reservoir of new species of bacteria and fungi and from some of them have been obtained antibiotics of interest. However, research on this issue has not been considered with all the dedication it deserves, to the point that the microbiology of caves and mines in Portugal is unknown, except for a few studies on volcanic caves in the Azores, very different in mineralogy and microorganisms of the caves of continental Portugal, developed on limestones or granites. The microbiological study of subterranean environments represents, therefore, an interesting line of research by exploring the great diversity of unknown bacteria and fungi and the possible production of new bioactive substances.
But the search for bioactive compounds is not only limited to medicine, but is also necessary in agriculture. In this regard, the appearance of new pests that attack fruit trees and is transmitted by insects has attracted the attention of researchers. Therefore, the biocidal activity of bioactive compounds on a selection of phytopathogenic bacteria will be tested.
The characteristics of the area of the Iberian Pyrite Belt (IPB) with the mines of pyrite, manganese, etc. conform a scenario where microorganisms are under stress and the need to develop a metabolic system capable of coping with oligotrophy (lack of organic nutrients) and the expression of genes that produce bioactive compounds against other organisms that compete for the scarcity of nutrients available in the environment, so we consider of great interest the exploration of the mines in search of new microorganisms. The existence of the IPF in the POCTEP area is a specific feature of the territory that allows the investigation of new resources, such as those proposed in this project. The innovative methodology, with the application of biotechnology and molecular biology with the study of the complete genome and transcriptomics gives added value to this project and allows being optimistic in achieving results.
Our project can isolate new strains of bacteria and fungi with potential production of CBA of interest for medicine and agriculture. In addition, a third aspect is that this project can lead to the discovery of strains of microorganisms that are beneficial for the environment, due to their ability to degrade xenobiotic compounds, soil and water pollutants, for their production of surfactant compounds, polysaccharides, lipids, etc. with properties to improve agricultural soils. Additionally, the participating company, which will give researchers access to the mines and participate in the sampling campaigns, will develop projects focused on promoting tourism infrastructure in the areas under study, in order to increase development and economy of the areas that once had mining activity, now abandoned, and that are in depressed regions and villages.