Is ‘Pseudonocardia’ the next superhero?

Graphic by Julia Read

At the W.M. Keck Science Department, professor Ethan Van Arnam’s lab is working with real-life superheroes. Located on the second floor in a newly remodeled lab, members of this group work with leaf-cutter ants.

While these insects might not seem particularly exciting, the bacteria that grows on their backs are actual superheroes. The bacteria create their own antibody that help the ants defend themselves.

“[The ants] need antibiotics to help fight off diseases, and the bacteria are right there producing them for the ants,” Van Arnam said.

This mechanism, where bacteria help an organism defend itself, is defined as defensive symbiosis and has been found in many other systems, including other insects and plants.

Working with ants is new to Keck, as Van Arnam, a chemical ecologist, just started teaching in Claremont last fall. He said that “starting a lab from scratch is a real undertaking.”

Even though the lab has only been working for a year, they have already started characterizing properties of a new antibody that they believe is entirely unique. The lab has been working earnestly on this part of the project, which has large implications for the world of medicine.

“What I like about [the project] is how close the parallel is to human medicine,” Van Arnam said. “It’s pretty directly analogous to what the ants are doing.”

When discussing this project’s relation to the medical and pharmaceutical fields, both Rose Kim PZ ’21 and Krithika Rao SC ’19, other members of the lab, mentioned that antibiotic resistance is a large problem in the world today.

“[For] every single antibiotic that is currently used in medicine, we’ve been able to find bacterial pathogens that are resistant to those antibiotics,” Rao said. Thus, it is becoming more and more important to find new antibiotics that can fight off infections.

Additionally, Van Arnam noted there is a desperate need for more antibiotics.

“Antibiotic resistance is constantly rising in bacteria that infect people, and as a result, the antibiotics that we have lose their usefulness over time,” he said.

The idea behind the lab is that by learning more about how these antibiotics function in nature, there is the potential to learn more about how they could be applied to medicine.

This idea of looking at nature, particularly bacteria, as educators is one that Van Arnam believes is very useful.

“We have a lot to learn about chemistry from bacteria,” he said. “Bacteria have been synthesizing really complex molecules, which include antibiotics … for hundreds of millions of years at least.”

Bacteria have become experts at creating potent antibiotics, and by looking to them as chemical superheroes and teachers, researchers can learn more about how they actually create these desirable molecules.

Caitlyn Fick is a chemistry major at Scripps College. She enjoys mountains, trees, water, and dogs.

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