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UW researchers collect insects and marine wildlife in hopes of creating antibiotics

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Madison (WKOW)-- Many medical experts believe the world is facing a global public health crisis. Every year the Center for Disease Control says more than two million patients in hospitals get infections that are resistant to antibiotics.

"Looking at our own hospital we see one patient a day with an infection for which we have no effective therapy," UW-Madison Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. David Andes says.

That's why Dr. Andes and a diverse team of researchers from various specialties have decided to collaborate on a first of its kind project. Over the next five years they will collect samples of microbes from insects and marine wild life from across the country. These microbes come in the form of fungi or bacteria that live on these animals.

"These  microbes are producing molecules in many times to protect that animal from threats in the environment, including infectious threats," Dr. Andes says.

The hope is that a few of these microbes will show the potential of becoming antibiotics to protect humans. Researchers on the team say many of the easy to find antibiotics have already been discovered. Their strategy is to search in the strange and hard to reach areas that haven't been considered yet. That's why the team is focusing on underwater species like sea sponges and small insects like ants.

The idea for the project actually started with a single ant colony. One of the researchers, bacterial scientist Cameron Currie, noticed that a specific type of microbe was growing on a colony of ants. Further investigation showed that this microbe was protecting the ant from environmental threats and was helping them in their day to day life. This realization inspired researchers to look for other microbes on animals that could show potential for creating antibiotics.

"When it comes to seeking out new antibiotics, all of the low-hanging fruit has already been discovered so to speak. We as researchers have to search for the high-hanging fruit on the tree. Where no one has looked yet," Dr. Andes says.

The project is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Researchers will be given up to $16 million over the next five years. Their goal is to collect a few thousand samples in hopes of finding at least one microbe each year that has the potential to create an antibiotic.

"We're trying to find the needle in the haystack so to speak," Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Tim Bugni says. "It's very fulfilling for me to collaborate with a team of so many talented researchers on a project that can make a real impact on public health."

Bugni is currently planning a trip to Puerto Rico to collect underwater samples in the ocean. His colleague Cameron Currie spent a few days in Florida gathering ants and insects for the study. The team features seven researchers with a variety of specialties including biology, chemistry and pharmacology. Six of the researches work on UW-Madison campus. One researcher from Harvard is also collaborating on the project.

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