Cultivating uncultivable bacteria opens door for new generation of
21 April 2010
Scientists at Northeastern University in the US have taken a
major step towards being able to grow previously uncultivable bacteria
in the lab, the potential key to developing a new generation of highly
Examining bacterial communities enveloping particles of sand, the
Northeastern researchers identified chemicals — called siderophores
— produced by cultivable bacteria that act as growth factors for
distantly related strains of uncultivable bacteria. When the two
types of bacteria were placed in close proximity in a Petri dish,
the uncultivable bacterium grew.
The finding, published in the March 26 issue of the journal
Chemistry & Biology, “opens a new chapter in the century-old
quest to access a major source of biodiversity on the planet,” said
Professor of Biology Kim Lewis, who led the research.
The discovery represents the first identified mechanism governing
the growth of uncultured bacteria in the lab, said Lewis, who
directs Northeastern’s Antimicrobial Discovery Center (ADC). “This
provides us with a general approach to finding other types of growth
factors that will give us access to additional classes of uncultured
Most antibiotics, which treat infections by killing the bacterial
cells or inhibiting their growth, have been discovered from bacteria
that readily grow in the lab. But more than 99% of all species of
bacteria cannot be grown in a lab, and attempts to replicate these
uncultivable bacteria have been unsuccessful up until this point.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg and could lead to the
development of new ways to treat bacterial infections,” said Anthony
D’Onofrio, the paper’s first author and postdoctoral research
associate at the ADC.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School collaborated with
Northeastern scientists on the project. The other Northeastern
collaborators included Professor of Biology Slava Epstein; and
biology research professor Eric J. Stewart, postdoctoral research
associate Ekaterina Gavrish and student researcher Kathrin Witt, all
working in the ADC.
The Antimicrobial Discovery Center was founded in 2006 to
translate basic science discoveries into novel antimicrobial
therapies to combat biowarfare and conventional pathogen threats.
The interdisciplinary center, funded by grants from the National
Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and Department of
Energy, draws faculty members from biology, chemistry, physics and