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Wednesday, 8 May, 2002, 18:35 GMT 19:35 UK
Nature's medicine maker decoded
Streptomyces coelicolor (John Innes Centre)
The soil-dwelling bacterium makes antibiotics
British scientists have decoded the genetic make-up of the bacterium that makes most of the world's antibiotics.

The information will be used to develop more powerful medicines to fight superbugs and even cancer.

The bacterium, known as Streptomyces coelicolor, is found in the soil.

Hospital ward (VT freeze frame)
Superbugs are on the rise in hospitals
It is a natural antibiotic factory, making drugs that fight infection.

Together with other members of the same family, the bug produces two-thirds of all natural antibiotics.

It also makes drugs used to treat cancer or stop organs being rejected by the human body after transplant operations.

Microbe war

Biotech companies say they may be able to make new drugs from scratch using genetic knowledge of the bacterium.

They now know the biochemical instructions for the machinery the bug uses to make antibiotics.

The eight million or so DNA "letters" of the bug's genome are organised into 20 groups of genes.

Streptomyces genome
Eight and a half million DNA "letters"
20 clusters of genes
An estimated 8,700 genes
In comparison, the E. coli bug has 4,000 genes, yeast 6,000, the fruit fly 13,000, the nematode worm 18,000, and a human being about 30,000.
Professor Sir David Hopwood, of the John Innes Centre, in Norwich, UK, who led the 2m research project, said: "We knew four antibiotics were made by this strain, but we found 17 or 18 other clusters which make other active compounds that are possibly only produced under very special soil conditions.

"This organism has twice as many genes as typical free-living bacteria. You could say it's a boy scout - it's prepared. You've got the core of the chromosome, and then there are arms which are not essential but do useful things, like making antibiotics."

New antibiotics are needed to fight the rise of superbugs - bacteria that have become resistant to common antibiotics used to fight disease.

The most notorious of these is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a bug that infects wounds and has become rife in hospitals.

The completed genome of this bacterium was recently published by Japanese researchers.

The Streptomyces data are published in the scientific journal Nature.

See also:

10 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
'Flesh-eating' bug genome decoded
13 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Deadly bugs decoded
19 Apr 01 | Health
Breakthrough in 'superbug' battle
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