Stick insects a clue to the secrets of antibiotic resistance

Scientists in Norwich have discovered an entirely new source of antibiotics, in a very surprising location: stick insects.

Researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich claim that a microbe located in the gut of a particular stick insect, the giant lime green stick insect, could be an unexpected aide in the battle against antibiotic resistance.

The giant lime green stick insect feeds primarily upon eucalyptus, a plant which is well-known for its antibacterial properties. In fact, the stick insect, when introduced to certain toxins and infections, which it would almost certainly never have come across naturally in the wild, showed a remarkable resistance to them. Such a response is, claim the Norwich researchers, indicative of an exciting mechanism at work, one which could hold the key to the secrets of antibiotic resistance.

Katarzyna Ignasiak, who is working on the research with the stick insects at the JIC, said: “This research is at the very early stage but it is exciting to investigate new solutions to the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance.

Indeed, this is a problem which has become increasingly worrisome for scientists in recent years, as large numbers of drugs become less effective or even ineffective each year due to microbes evolving to become resistant to antibiotics.

Professor Tony Maxwell, head of biological chemistry at the JIC, said of the situation: “If we don’t take action now, antibiotic resistance could mean that widely used treatments for diseases including cancer and common operations such as hip replacements could become impossible.”

The antibiotic properties of the stick insect are not entirely new. In the recent past, scientists have also discovered similar effects in the leafcutter ant, who carries an antibiotic on its skin. These ants cut sections off the leaves, which they carry underground to allow it to decompose into a type of fungus. In order to protect this fungus from microbes and bacteria, and to encourage the fungus’ growth, the ants carry an antibiotic-producing bacteria on their skin.

One antibiotic discovered on leafcutter ants is already used in an antifungal in modern medicine, and the researchers at the JIC hope that further study of the giant lime green stick insect will lead to the uncovering of new antibiotics in the future.

Sources include BBC News, Pharmiweb

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