By Kristina Bowen

Researchers discovered a new member of the Streptomyces bacteria family which was isolated from Tetraponera penzigi, an ant species found in Africa. Plant-ant mutualism between the Kenyan plant-ants and the thorny acacia trees has been studied as a potential source for new antibiotics. The thorny acacia trees have evolved hollow structures called domatia to house the ant as well as grow fungus to feed them. The ants protect the plant by swarming and biting large herbivores approaching the acacia trees. It was from the fungus on the worker ant that the researchers were able to isolate multiple strains of Streptomyces. Streptomyces bacteria are commonly known for producing secondary metabolites including antifungals, antivirals, and antibiotics. More than half of the clinical antibiotics that are currently used have been obtained from these species, many of which were introduced during the “Golden Age” of antibiotics.

One particular strain of Streptomyces isolated from the worker ant has already proven effective against methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin resistant Enterococci (VRE). This new bacteria species has been named Streptomyces formicae, and the newly isolated antibiotic is called formicamycin.

This discovery of formicamycin can have huge implications for public health because MRSA is resistant to most antibiotics and VRE is resistant to vancomycin, which is the primary drug used to treat infections caused by enterococci. MRSA is spread by contacting an infected wound such as skin to skin contact or sharing personal items (ie towel or razor). VRE is often spread by person to person contact such as touching contaminated hands or surfaces. Maintaining good hygiene is the main method for preventing an outbreak of either bacteria. This includes frequent hand washing and wearing gloves when handling body fluids or bandages from a potentially infected wound.

Overall, proper, responsible use of this new antibiotic formicamycin has the potential to treat life threatening infections that were otherwise untreatable.