Since the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, bacteria have been evolving new strategies to resist the effects of antibiotics. If this trend is allowed to continue, it is estimated that all currently known antibiotics could become ineffective within decades. According to a report by the Review On Antimicrobial Resistance, the problem could cause the world’s population to fall by almost half a billion by 2050.


Now, an international team of researchers has discovered a new antibiotic in bacteria that infects potatoes.

Dubbed solanimycin, the antibiotic is effective against a wide range of crop-killing fungi, the researchers say. In lab tests, it was also effective against Candida albicans – a naturally occurring fungus that can cause serious infections..

“It’s an antifungal that we believe will work by killing fungal competitors, and the bacteria benefit so much from this,” said team member and microbiologist Dr Rita Monson, from the University of Cambridge. “But you don’t turn it on unless you’re in a potato.”

Most currently used therapeutic antibiotics are produced from soil microbes but the discovery of solanimycin highlights the potential of plant-based microorganisms to produce the drugs.

The researchers found that the pathogenic potato bacterium Dickeya solani, produces small amounts of solanimycin when placed into an acidic environment, such as that present in a potato.

They have now started working with chemists to learn more about the molecular structure of solanimycin and to better understand how it works.

“Our future steps are focused on trying to use this antibiotic antifungal for plant protection,” said team member and molecular microbiologist Miguel Matilla, from the Spanish Research Council’s Estación Experimental del Zaidín, in Granada.

“We have to open to the exploration of everything that’s out there to find new antibiotics.”

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.