Spelunking scientists — caves provide possible reservoir for antibiotics

While caves are home to few plants and animals, they are teeming with microbes that may provide science with a reservoir for new antibiotics, according to a Popular Science article.


As an estimated 99 percent of all microbial species have yet to be discovered, which means there are likely a wealth of bacterial and fungal antibiotic candidates yet to be identified.

Here are three things to know about the search for new antibiotics in caves.

1. Untapped reservoir: Scientists once assumed microbial populations dwelling in caves would be comparable to those found in surface soils, which have been thoroughly combed for antibiotic candidates.

"For many years people didn't think there was anything unique about cave microbes," said Kathleen Lavoie, PhD, a microbiologist at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh, according to Popular Science.

In a study published February in PLOS One, Dr. Lavoie and colleagues document a trip to seven caves located in Lava Beds National Monument in California. Just 11 percent of the bacteria collected in the caves could also be found in surface soils.

2. Moonmilk: In addition to new bacteria, scientists are surfacing from caves with substances used hundreds of years ago for various curative purposes. Moonmilk — a gunk with a toothpaste-like texture — is among one of the old-world cures scientists are recovering from caves. In the past, the substance was used as a remedy for ulcers, diarrhea, broken bones and more. Scientists have also identified a wealth of bacteria in moonmilk, many of which belong to the bacterial family actinomycetes, which have produced multiple antibiotics in the past.

However, while the substance has displayed promise as a potential antibiotic candidate, it will take years to derive a possible treatment from the substance as multiple difficulties in drug development can arise in a laboratory setting.

"You start out with 10,000 candidate chemicals, and 12 years and a billion dollars later you might have one," said Dr. Lavoie. "But you've got to have a place to start, so the more you find the better off you are."

3. Spelunking scientists: Exploring caves is no easy feat, as they are often tucked away in remote locations and may prove difficult to navigate due to cramped space. Also, spelunking scientists have to be careful to not contaminate the pristine ecosystem of caves with bacteria from their own bodies. While the task is difficult, it can also prove exhilarating.

"What's really exciting is ... to realize that it's a completely unexplored environment, and to be the first one to collect samples of bacteria that have been there for millions of years," said Dr. Sébastien Rigali, a molecular microbiologist at the University of Liège in Belgium, according to the article. "What we have isolated so far is maybe one millionth of what is really living there."

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