Scientists find ‘magical’ property of MRSA-killing Antarctic sponge

19 May 2016

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), familiar as one of the biggest infection threats in hospitals, now has a new enemy in the form of an extract from a sea sponge found in the frozen emptiness of the Antarctic.

Highly-resistant to almost every attempt to treat it, the MRSA strain of bacteria has long been the scourge of clean environments where there are people with weak immune systems – such as hospitals or nursing homes – but, in recent years, it has become even more widespread in places like gyms and public changing rooms.

Unfortunately for humans, MRSA is unique in that it can cause infections in almost every niche of the human host, from skin infections, to pneumonia, to endocarditis, a serious infection of tissues lining the heart.

It’s always in the last place you look

Given our rapid descent into a world that is ‘post-antibiotic’, our ability to treat it had seemingly become an increasingly fruitless pursuit, or so it had seemed, until now.

In a paper recently published in the American Chemical Society’s journal, Organic Letters, a team of researchers from the University of South Florida (USF) ha said it believes it has found a possible chemical answer in a place we would have never expected.

Having spent years attempting to find a potential treatment for MRSA in the wilds of nature, Dr Bill Baker and his team came across a sponge extract called Dendrilla membranosa in the Antarctic that appeared to show the best possibility yet.


Dr Bill Baker (left) and Dr Lindsey N Shaw during their Antarctic search. Image via USF

‘We desperately need new anti-biofilm agents’

When analysed further by the team, the natural product chemical extract was shown in laboratory tests to eliminate more than 98pc of MRSA cells, which, it is fair to say, is an extraordinary result.

Dubbed darwinolide, the potential antibiotic’s fight against MRSA is most effective due to the fact it is effective against biofilms, which the MRSA infection forms during its attack on the body.

“Biofilms, formed by many pathogenic bacteria during infection, are a collection of cells coated in a variety of carbohydrates, proteins and DNA,” said the paper’s co-author, Dr Lindsey N Shaw.

“Up to 80pc of all infections are caused by biofilms and are resistant to therapy. We desperately need new anti-biofilm agents to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections like MRSA.”

The team of researchers concluded that with their newly-refined darwinolide: “We suggest that darwinolide may present a highly-suitable scaffold for the development of urgently needed, novel, anti-biofilm-specific antibiotics.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic