Bioactive prospecting

Biosprospecting is the process of discovering and commercialising new products derived from nature. The process of discovery often uses indigenous or traditional knowledge, but has, more often than not, been more of a scatter gun approach to surveying and testing the bioactivity of a range of products from all plants and animals in a region.

Bioprospectors have been keen to distance themselves from biopiracy – the exploitative appropriation of indigenous knowledge by commercial actors. Such exploitation can also include the search for previously unknown compounds in organisms that have never been used in traditional medicine, but where the return of benefits from commercialisation activities is not appropriately shared with source countries or communities.

But benefit sharing problems aside, how do we better target the discovery of bioactive compounds, which can be of benefit to us all, without surveying a whole biota (all the plants and animals in an ecosystem)?

Several approaches have been tried to conduct exploration activities in a more targeted way.

Typically bioprospecting surveys will target different vegetation types, as this is expected to capture the most different types of species and their adaptations (which potentially underlie the biochemical differences that are the basis of bioactive compounds).

Using ecological knowledge is a more recent and sophisticated approach to help identify specific bioactive compounds, for example those that have sun protective or fungicidal activity, and is a method used by the Australian Bioactive Compounds Centre (ABCC).

However, a new research paper highlights how we can better target the search for new biotherapeutics in nature using knowledge of variation in climate and soils. The study has identified that a class of microbial bioactive compounds, or biosynthetic domains, correlates closely with latitude and also soil pH.

Whilst the underlying cause of differences in the composition of biosynthetic domains remains unknown, the significant correlation with latitude provides guidance on how best to conduct future surveys of drug discovery products from nature.

So here is the advice then – to best search for new therapeutic drugs, screen across a broad latitudinal range (that’s north to south) and across different soil types.

This research was recently published in the leading journal – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Lemetre, C., Maniko, J., Charlop-Powers, Z., Sparrow, B., Lowe, A., and Brady, S. (2017) Bacterial natural product biosynthetic domain composition in soil correlates with changes in latitude on a continent wide-scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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