Microbiology Is … The Search for New Antibiotics

Sept. 10, 2021

Erika Kurt, President and CEO of the Small World Initiative, talks about the approach being taken to address the antibiotic crisis.

What’s the Issue?

Traditionally, the main approach to dealing with infectious diseases has been through administration of antibiotics. And antibiotics have been incredibly effective: as an example, the mortality rate from infectious diseases in England declined from 25% in the early 1900’s to less than 1% in the 1950s. 

Yet, as anyone familiar with how natural selection works could predict, the targeted microbes began to evolve, increasingly able to evade the effects of antibiotics. What was once a minor nuisance is now a major threat to humanity: antimicrobial resistance is responsible for approximately 35,000 deaths annually in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Unfortunately, while the need for new, more effective antibiotics is rapidly increasing, the rate of antibiotic discovery is going in the opposite direction. Between 2004 and 2014, only a dozen new antibiotics were approved for use in humans. Moreover, more than 60% of antibiotics currently in use are derivatives of penicillin, leading to decreasing returns in terms of efficacy.

The pace of antibiotic discovery and development has picked up as the threat has become more obvious: as of 2020, there were 43 novel drugs in the pipeline, though ⅔ of these were only in Phase 1 or Phase 2 clinical trials. Yet, with such an urgent need, the scientific and medical communities will have to accelerate their efforts if humanity hopes to keep up with the antibiotic resistance crisis. 

How to Get Involved?

Clearly, the microbiology community has a big role to play in staunching antimicrobial resistance. While the main focus will be in the lab and the clinic, there are several additional efforts taking place that are making significant contributions:
  • The Small World Initiative takes an education-based approach to the antibiotic crisis, working to groom the next generation of scientists by empowering students in the search for potentially helpful soil-based microbes.
  • The Citizen Science Soil Collection Program, based at the University of Oklahoma, invites individuals within the United States to share soil samples for analysis, engaging non-scientists in the research process.
  • At the U.K.-based Swab and Send project, participants are invited to collect and share samples from all types of surfaces and locations. Results are posted and disseminated through their social media channels, using #swabandsend.

About Erika Kurt: 

Erika Kurt, L.L.B., is President and CEO of the Small World Initiative. A lawyer by training, Erika has nonetheless had a passion for science ever since being read bedtime stories out of scientific journals as an infant. At the Small World Initiative, Erika is able to translate that passion into action, helping to revolutionize how science is taught in high schools and colleges by developing trainings and curricula that incorporate active discovery and participation. In addition to taking on the antibiotic crisis, as an AAAS IF/THENⓇ Ambassador, Erika is a champion for women and girls in STEM, using her platform to inspire those following her path.

About the "Microbiology Is..." Project

The “Microbiology Is...” project is a series from ASM in which we highlight how microbiologists around the world work with local, national and international partners to apply laboratory research to real-world issues that directly affect individuals and communities. From the obvious (antibiotics, safe drinking water) to the obscure (wine production), this project covers the entire spectrum of applications for microbiology. Through these stories, we are showcasing the human side of science and the true impact microbiology has on society. Hopefully, we’ll also be able to inspire more microbiologists to bring their work out of the lab and into their local communities. Because ultimately, microbiology is for everyone.

Author: Geoff Hunt, Ph.D.

Geoff Hunt, Ph.D.
Geoff Hunt earned his Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton University.