Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered that one gene in a common fungus acts as a master regulator, and deleting it has opened access to a wealth of new compounds that have never before been studied – with the potential to identify new antibiotics.
Scientists succeeded in flipping a genetic switch that had silenced more than 2,000 genes in this fungus, the cereal pathogen Fusarium graminearum. Until now this had kept it from producing novel compounds that may have useful properties, particularly for use in medicine but also perhaps in agriculture, industry, or biofuel production.
"About a third of the genome of many fungi has always been silent in the laboratory," said Michael Freitag, an associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the OSU College of Science. "Many fungi have antibacterial properties. It was no accident that penicillin was discovered from a fungus, and the genes for these compounds are usually in the silent regions of genomes.
"What we haven't been able to do is turn on more of the genome of these fungi, see the full range of compounds that could be produced by expression of their genes," he said. "Our finding should open the door to the study of dozens of new compounds, and we'll probably see some biochemistry we've never seen before."
In the past, the search for new antibiotics was usually done by changing the environment in which a fungus or other life form grew, and see if those changes generated the formation of a compound with antibiotic properties.