Even though there are microbes all round us, only about 1% of them can be cultured and grown in a lab. This can make them very difficult to study! Researchers at Northeastern University have figured out a way to learn more about unculturable bacteria, and even discovered a new antibiotic. They used a device called an iChip, which sorts single cells from an environmental sample (in this case, soil) into wells, and is then placed back into the environment. Chemicals are allowed to diffuse into the iChip, and a colony forms in isolation while still in contact with its natural environment. These colonies were then tested for their ability to inhibit the growth of a common pathogen, Staphylococcus aureus. One of the antibiotics, teixobactin, has shown a lot of promise in early testing.
One interesting thing to note from a microbial ecology standpoint is that only about 50% of cells were able to grow in the iChip, even though they had access to many molecules from their natural environment. It’s possible that they need a chemical that is not able to diffuse into the iChip, or that they require direct contact with other bacteria to grow. Still, this is a very cool piece of technology that has many potential applications in microbial ecology!
Click here for the Nature article and podcast.