Researchers at the University of Warwick and the John Innes Centre have found a signalling molecule that could unlock hundreds of antibiotics from the DNA of the Streptomyces family of bacteria.
With bacterial resistance growing, researchers are keen to uncover as many new antibiotics as possible.
Researchers have already developed approaches to find and exploit pathways for antibiotic production in the genome of the Streptomyces family.
It was previously thought the relatively unstable butyrolactone compounds represented by 'A-factor' were the only real signal for stimulating such pathways of possible antibiotic production.
However, the Warwick and John Innes teams have found a more stable group of compounds that could potentially produce new antibiotic compounds from up to 50 per cent of the 1000 or so known Streptomyces family of bacteria.
Colonies of bacteria such as Streptomyces naturally make antibiotics as a defence mechanism when they are under stress and thus more susceptible to attack from other bacteria.
The colonies must produce a compound to spread a signal across the colony to start producing natural antibiotics.
The amount of such signalling material produced is tiny.
Only micrograms of these compounds can be isolated by chemists and the available instrumentation usually needs milligrams of material to make a useful analysis.
The University of Warwick's 700 MHz NMR machine was used to look closely at micrograms of five new possible signalling compounds identified as 2-alkyl-4-hydroxymethylfuran-3- carboxylic acids (or AHFCAs).
The researchers, led by Dr Christophe Corre and professor Greg Challis from the University of Warwick's Department of Chemistry, combined their new insight into these compounds with the relatively new full-genetic sequences of some Streptomyces bacteria.
They were convinced the AHFCA group of compounds could play a role in stimulating the production of known and novel antibiotics.
When they added AHFCAs to Streptomyces coelicolor W81 they were proved correct as it stimulated the production of methylenomycin antibiotics.
While the methylenomycins were already known as antibiotics, the researchers thought it likely AHFCAs controlled novel pathways for antibiotic production.
Significant quantities of the AHFCAs should be relatively easy to make in a lab and could help antibiotic discovery.
The researchers are now seeking funding to explore the AHFCAs.
Introducing a variety of AHFCAs to various Streptomyces bacteria could activate hundreds of pathways for antibiotic production.
Dr Christophe Corre said: 'Early results also suggest that this approach could switch on novel antibiotic production pathways in up to 50 per cent of Streptomyces bacteria.
'With thousands of known members of the Streptomyces family, that could mean that AHFCAs could unlock hundreds of new antibiotics to replenish our dwindling arsenal of effective antibiotic drugs.'