Scientists use colonies of E. coli as antibiotic production factories

Buffalo researchers have managed to grow new forms of erythromycin, seen here in petri dishes (circled in red)(Credit: Guojian Zhang)

A team of researchers from the University at Buffalo School of Engineering has turned to colonies of E. coli bacteria to produce new forms of antibiotics. The study made use of a harmless form of E. coli, and several of the resulting drugs may be equipped to tackle harmful, drug-resistant bacteria.

It's long been suspected that E. coli could be a source of new forms of antibiotics. The bacteria grows very fast, allowing researchers to quickly prototype treatments, and the species is very accepting of new genes, making it a good option for drug engineering.

The University at Buffalo researchers spent 11 years working with E. coli, manipulating the bacteria to produce the material necessary for creating erythromycin, which is used in the treatment of various illnesses from whooping cough to pneumonia.

The team describes the process as being akin to stocking a factory with the components necessary to build a car, with each of the produced materials manipulating or combining with three key chemical compounds as if on a production line, eventually forming erythromycin.

Once the bacteria is prepped and ready for production to begin, it's possible to tweak the process so that slightly different versions of erythromycin are produced, differing from those currently used in medical treatment. To build these differently-shaped erythromycin, the team used enzymes to attach 16 different sugar molecules to a molecule in the production process, itself known as 6-deoxyerythronolide B.

Each of the sugar molecules successfully adhered to the production molecules, giving rise to more than 40 new versions of erythromycin at the end of the assembly line. After laboratory testing, the researchers found that three of the samples were able to fight eyrthromycin-resistant bacteria. Overall, it's a very promising start for a new avenue of drug development.

"The system we’ve created is surprisingly flexible, and that’s one of the great things about it," said the university's Professor Blaine Pfeifer. "We have established a platform for using E. coli to produce erythromycin, and now that we’ve got it, we can start altering it in new ways."

The researchers published the findings of their study in the journal Science Advances.

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