Bacterial anti-infective defense systems could aid humans

By Wendy Plump

Chen Zhang, graduate student in the Seyedsayamdost lab, preparing a cell culture
within a sterile clean hood. Photo by C. Todd Reichart

The search for new antibacterial and antiviral drugs, including those that could fight COVID-19, is being aided by bacteria themselves. The strategy, pioneered by Mohammad Seyedsayamdost, associate professor of chemistry, exploits bacterial self-defense mechanisms: When bacteria are under attack by other microorganisms, they produce antibacterial and generally toxic compounds, which the researchers collect and study for their suitability to protect humans.

“More than half of the anti-infectives used clinically come from nature, from natural products synthesized by bacteria, fungi or plants,” said Seyedsayamdost, who in 2020 was named recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, considered one of the most prestigious grants in the nation. “These molecules have been honed by evolution to kill a competitor or a virus, exactly the type of thing we want to do in medicine.”