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Nature can help us fight disease

The hand of Lee Foster, treasurer of the

The hand of Lee Foster, treasurer of the South Fork Land Foundation, grasps a handful of dirt on a parcel of land the foundation owns on Highland Terrace in Bridgehampton. (May 22, 2013) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Let's hear it for dirt.

Unheralded as it is, dirt has produced a new antibiotic that killed the staph infection MRSA and drug-resistant tuberculosis in tests on mice -- without killing the mice and with no sign the bacteria would become resistant to it. With bacterial resistance to old antibiotics growing and few new ones looming, it's an important advance.

But the real significance is the antibiotic's origins. Teixobactin was in the dirt in a grassy field in Maine. Plants, fungi and microorganisms all over the world have always produced potential antibiotics. Most can't be grown in labs. But the researchers who found Teixobactin tricked soil microbes to grow in cultures and found 25 new antibiotics. The possibilities are staggering.

But we continue to destroy habitats worldwide, and don't know what we might be losing. That's sobering.