Popular Science

Scientists are spelunking for cave gunk to fight superbugs

Deep in caverns around the world, bacteria are laboring to make antibiotics we can discover and use for ourselves.

Yellow microbial mats on the walls of Hopkins Chocolate Cave at Lava Beds National Monument in California.

Kenneth Ingham

Caves are dark, dank, isolated, and home to very few plants or animals. At first glance they might seem devoid of life. But caves are full of microscopic creatures, bacteria and fungi at home in the gloom. These microbes, scientists are discovering, may be an untapped reservoir of new medicines to fight antibiotic-resistant germs.

That’s because most of the antibiotics we rely on actually come from bacteria and fungi; penicillin itself was derived from the Penicillium mold. In nature, microbes make these deadly chemicals to wage war on their neighbors (they may also use low doses of antibiotics to signal each other). We’ve taken these chemicals for our own use, and have developed hundreds of different antibiotics. But now, as more and more germs become resistant to our drugs, we are in desperate need of new ones.

By this point we’ve already found most of the obvious candidates dwelling in the soil around us. Yet an estimated 99 percent of all microbe species still await discovery, and the hunt for bacteria and fungi that could

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