Arctic Bacteria Could Form Foundation of Lifesaving Drugs: Researchers

January 15, 2015 Updated: July 18, 2015

Bacteria growing in the Arctic could provide researchers with new antibiotics, a field that’s getting more urgent as time goes on.

Because it’s not cost-effective for pharmaceutical companies to search for new antibiotics, they’re coming onto the market less, while bacteria are becoming resistant to many of the current antibiotics. 

“If no one finds new antibiotics for common infections, what will happen is we will go back to the pre-antibiotic age in which a simple cut could turn into an infection that becomes deadly,” said Marcel Jaspars, founder of the PharmaSea project.

The initiative, funded by the European Union, brings research groups from around the world together in search of new antibiotics–and Jaspars has found promising leads in the Norwegian arctic. 

Extreme environments are the best place to look because bacteria can’t be resistant to things they’ve never encountered before. 

Jaspars colleagues Jeannette Anderson, a cell biologist, and Robert Johansen, a marine biologist, are working in the icy waters to find potentially new bacteria. 

“They have to adjust for very different temperatures as compared to other parts of the world,” Anderson told CNN. “We think that since they are living in an extreme environment, they have developed some extreme strategies to survive.”

The early results are promising–several compounds are being tested in Norway and Scotland, showing initial signs of antibacterial properties. The research backs up what some previous studies had found, although researchers in 2006 did appear to find that drug-resistant bacteria had spread to the Arctic. “Bacteria with antimicrobial drug resistance could be imported into the region either by migratory birds or through human refuse (food, excretions) from fishermen, settlers, and prospectors in the area,” the other set of researchers said then.

The PharmaSea researchers are still working hard to provide the medicine.

“It is always very exciting when you get to the stage where you are the first person to see a bacteria,” said Jaspars, “or the first person to identify the structure of a new molecule that has the potential at that moment, to be a treatment for a difficult disease.”

*Antibiotics image via Shutterstock

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