Scientists want your dirt. No, seriously, there are scientists who want you to go outside, fill a sandwich baggie full of dirt and send it to them. For science.
There could be stellar drugs in the soil we step on. The diverse and thriving bacterial populations in soil create some pretty impressive antibiotics in order to fight each other off (and insects and plants can produce them, too). Earlier this month, researchers announced that they'd found a new class of antibiotic by culturing soil microbes, and that it might one day treat illnesses like TB with little risk of bacterial resistance.
So Rockefeller University professor Sean Brady is putting out a call for diverse dirt in the hopes of finding even more.
"A few people are interested in this idea that maybe we’ve missed most of the antibiotics out in the world because we can't culture them," he said. But instead of trying to make the natural antibiotics grow in the lab, he set out to pull DNA from the soil he sampled to look for interesting genes.
"And once you know how to do that, you want to go out and screen the whole world," Brady said.
He hopes that one day his project Drugs From Dirt will help create a sort of Google Maps for drug discovery. "Any molecule used clinically today that comes from nature is going to have hundreds if not thousands of other versions of itself out there, and some of them are surely better," Brady said.
For example, somewhere in nature there must be a compound very similar to vancomycin (the antibiotic used to treat MRSA). Bacteria are increasingly showing resistance to vancomycin, so something that works the same way (but with a little more gusto when it comes to resistance development) would save many lives. But where to look?
Drugs From Dirt will keep track of what regions and environments have the same genes that give drugs like vancomycin their kick. "You'll be able to say, 'Oh, there are genes in some county in Texas that indicate we could find an analogue for that drug there,' and go look for it," Brady said.
The project has already sequenced about 200 dirt samples, but Brady would like to see that scaled up to 2,000. And he wants to include samples from all over the world. But his team will destroy the soil samples after they sequence the DNA within; they want to add the genes in these soil samples to their growing map, but they're not trying to develop drugs from borrowed microbes.
"We want this to be a public resource," Brady said.
Want to take part? Brady and his team have sequenced dirt from some states, but you can check the site to see if your hometown remains unrepresented. And even if someone from your state has already foiled your soil plans, there's still hope.
"We'd like to see some strange environments," Brady said. "An isolated forest, a muddy bog."
Volunteers need only sign up online, scoop up a few spoons of dirt, take a photo of the environment their sample came from, and make note of its GPS coordinates. The researchers won't be testing everything they receive, but they'll save it for later. If they really scale up the project, Brady said, the team might take the database down t0 a county-by-county resolution.
But that's a lot of dirt.