Superbugs that resist known antibiotics kill more than two million people a year worldwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a number that could reach 10 million by 2050. Now those bugs may finally have met their doom, thanks to strings of DNA salvaged from our prehistoric ancestors.
At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers used computer intelligence to sort through bits of genetic material gleaned from remains of Neanderthals and Denisovans, our two closest cousins on the evolutionary family tree. The mission: to find any pieces that might have antibiotic properties.
“There hasn’t been a truly new class of antibiotics in decades,” Penn biochemist Cesar de la Fuente said in a university release announcement. “We need to be thinking about more than just new drugs. We need new frameworks.”
The software found several shreds of DNA that hinted at antimicrobial powers. The DNA carried directions for building amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. With those directions, the researchers could actually build those ancient proteins and test them.
When they introduced these “immunity molecules” to pathogens in a lab, several of the prehistoric proteins were surprisingly effective.
“The ones that worked, worked quite well,” de la Fuente said. “In two cases, the peptides were comparable—if not better—than [today’s] standard of care. The ones that didn’t work helped us learn what needed to be improved” in computer screening methods.
So what happens now?
First, the bioethicists and lawyers get involved.
“We’re in conversation with bioethicists about what it means to bring genetic material back to life,” says de la Fuente.
Also, under law, existing amino acids aren’t patentable—but what about those built new from ancient blueprints?
TRENDPOST: The Penn idea raises the prospect of cataloging our ancient ancestors’ available genetic remnants to see what other properties they had that enabled them to survive a brutal and dangerous world and reviving those biological traits in some way to make use of them now.
However, stitching ancestral DNA into the current human genome will remain taboo, if not explicitly illegal, far into the future and perhaps permanently.