Discovering novel drugs in unexpected places
Last updated 17th May 2017
Our research focuses on understanding how natural product antibiotics made by actinomycete bacteria are used in nature. We use tropical Acromyrmex leafcutter ants and the plants Arabidopsis and wheat as model systems. They use antibiotics made by these symbiotic bacteria to protect themselves against infection. We explore fungus growing ant systems for novel antibiotics that might help us in the fight against antimicrobial resistance and we want to engineer better antibiotic producing bacterial strains into plant roots to provide better protection against disease.
Matt Hutchings will be talking about ants and antibiotics on the BBC4 programme Michael Mosely versus the Superbugs on 17th May 2017. You can watch it again here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08qkz77.
Recent public exhibitions have included the Antibiotic Hunters stand at the Norwich Science Festival 2016, Big Bang 2015 and the Great British Bioscience Festival in 2014 and the "Leafcutter ants and their antibiotics" stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2014. Our leafcutter ants will be making an appearance in the kids area at Latitude Festival, 13-16th July 2017 with the Science, Art and Writing Trust.
You can listen to Matt Hutchings talking to Eddie Mair about the research on this Radio 4 podcast or watch this feature on the BBC One Show, both recorded in July 2014. Or have a look at our Brilli-ant interactive case study on the UEA website.
About the research
To help address the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) crisis, scientists led by Prof Matt Hutchings at the University of East Anglia and Prof Barrie Wilkinson John Innes Centre are examining under explored environments like tropical fungus growing ant nests in the hope they will provide us with the next generation of antibiotics.
Most of our antibiotics are "natural products" made by a group of bacteria called actinomycetes that live in the soil. Unfortunately misuse of these antibiotics over the last 60 years has resulted in multidrug resistant bacterial and fungal infections that are becoming impossible to treat.
Our research is focussed on discovering novel antibiotics made by the actinomycete bacteria that live on fungus growing ants and we are also using tropical leafcutter ants to try and understand how animals form symbioses with beneficial bacteria.