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Scientists Make Antibiotics from Bacteria Found in the Human Body

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We’ve all got hidden potential within us. Some of it is apparently hidden very, very deep: scientists have used bacteria found in the human body to create two powerful new antibiotics. They described their work in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

The search for new antibiotics has become something of an arms race between researchers and the bacteria they’re trying to kill. The more antibiotics we use, the faster bacteria become resistant to our drugs, and the more pernicious their infections become. If we don’t come up with some new solutions soon, we’ll be facing a world awash with dangerous superbugs and no cures.

So drug researchers at The Rockefeller University have started thinking outside the box. Rather than building new pharmaceuticals from the ground up, they’ve been looking for them, well, in the ground, investigating natural materials like soil and sand in the hopes of finding a new bacteria-slaying tool.

One team of researchers at the university has set their sights ever so slightly higher, tapping not only the dirt but the bacteria-covered organisms that walk it. And by organisms, we mean people. Our bodies are crawling with bacteria, inside and out. Who knows what those little critters can do?

To find out, scientists from the Laboratory of Genetically Encoded Small Molecules decided to conduct a thorough search of the human microbiome (the collective term for the microscopic ecosystems sharing our bodies). They tapped into public microbiome databases, searching for gene clusters that could make molecules called non-ribosomal peptides (NRPs). NRPs have a lot of different skills. Some produce toxins, while others produce pigment. Others kill bacteria.

The search yielded 30 different NRP-making gene clusters, which the team then recreated in the lab. They set their newly grown clusters to work and coaxed them into producing 25 different chemical compounds. The team then pitted those compounds against various human pathogens to see if any could win. Two compounds, both derived from microbes in the genus Rhodococcus, succeeded. The researchers dubbed these new antibiotic contenders humimycins (from “human,” “microbiome,” and “mycin,” a common suffix for antibiotics).

The new humimycins were especially tough on Staphylococcus and Streptococcus bacteria (commonly known as staph and strep)—two pathogens known for overcoming and growing resistant to other drugs. Not only did the humimycins work on their own, but they also proved to be pretty good at breaking down the bacteria’s drug resistance so that other antibiotics could get in there and finish them off. 

Combining these new compounds with existing drugs could be the secret to shutting infection down, lead researcher Sean Brady said in a statement. “It’s like taking a hose and pinching it in two spots," he said. Even if neither kink can stop the flow of water on its own, “eventually, no more water comes through.” 

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This Living Wallpaper Uses Bacteria to Generate Electricity
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Previously known as the culprit behind some of the worst eyesores in home decorating history, wallpaper may be on the verge of a comeback. As FastCoDesign reports, scientists at Imperial College in London, the University of Cambridge, and Central Saint Martins have pioneered an innovative wall covering made of paper that contains live bacteria. The goal? To use that bacteria to generate electricity.

Here’s how it works. The paper is processed through a common inkjet printer, getting stamped with both conductive ink and then cyanobacteria, a photosynthesizing organism that gathers energy from light sources and turns it into electricity. After being exposed to the light, the paper's ink is able to conduct energy from the bacteria. The sample used—paper roughly the size of an iPad—powered a small LED bulb and digital clock via energy collected over the course of 100 hours.

Researchers at Imperial and their colleagues at the University of Cambridge and Central Saint Martins say the applications for “living wallpaper” are numerous. It could be used to monitor indoor air quality by powering sensors; in health care settings, small samples could monitor patients with conditions like diabetes. If enough energy could be harvested, it might be able to power larger devices or even charge phones—all of it disposable and biodegradable.

The project will next attempt to scale the paper panels up in size to allow for greater photosynthesis productivity while cleverly disguised as home decoration.

[h/t FastCoDesign]

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Dirty Money: The Cash In Your Wallet Is a Magnet for Germs
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If an item is handled by the public, whether it's a library book, a subway pole, or an ATM, you can count on it being filthy. One of the worst offenders is something most people carry around wherever they go: money. As TIME reports, a new study confirms that paper money is a magnet for germs and other microorganisms.

For their paper, which appears in the journal PLOS One, researchers swabbed dozens of $1 bills collected from New York City banks over the course of 2013. The results showed microbes from numerous sources living within the fibers. Most came from the human body, like skin bacteria, oral bacteria, and even vaginal bacteria. But non-human DNA was also prevalent. In the summer, researchers were most likely to find traces from pets like dogs and horses, while microbes from indoor fungi were more common in the winter. Skin break out lately? The bacteria to blame for acne were the most common microorganisms detected.

That list alone is enough to make you feel squeamish when leafing through your wallet, but it doesn't end there. American paper currency is 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen; this composition makes it a cozy environment for other microorganisms like viruses. According to SmartMoney, the flu can survive on paper money for more than 10 days under the right conditions. E. coli and salmonella have also been detected on paper bills.

While these facts make a good case for washing your hands after each transaction, there's no reason to make the full switch to plastic. The same properties that make money such a good home for bacteria also make it hard to spread those germs to people. When microbes settle into the woven material of a dollar, they tend to stay there, even when you take it out and pass it to someone else. And if some microbes do rub off on you, your skin does a great job of keeping them from getting inside your body where they can do real harm. But you should still remember to use hand sanitizer before eating that burger you just paid for.

Unfortunately, objects touched by strangers aren't the only germ-infested environments to be aware of. Here are some of the dirtiest surfaces lurking in your home.

[h/t TIME]

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