Scientists seek help from citizens to provide soil samples with medicinal value

The University of Oklahoma Natural Products Discovery Group has taken an unconventional approach to finding new compounds with therapeutic relevance by launching an initiative with citizen scientists from around the country. With this approach, researchers team with the public to sample soils from all across the United States for the purpose of identifying new microorganisms that produce drug-like compounds.

This effort recently led to the discovery of maximiscin, a unique bioactive compound obtained from a soil sample submitted by an Alaskan citizen, which has shown early promising results by stopping the growth of melanoma cells in vivo.

“The exciting part of this discovery is that a citizen scientist participated in our program and sent us this sample,” says Robert H. Cichewicz, associate professor in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences and director of the National Products Institute. “We probably would not have discovered this compound without the Citizen Science Program.”

“In the next phase of this research, we need to learn more about the molecule to see how it functions and how we can make it better,” Cichewicz explained. “We have to take this bioactive compound from a discovery to a lead compound and, fortunately, OU recently invested in expanding these efforts with the establishment of the new Institutes for Natural Products Applications and Research Technologies.”

During the last several years, the OU Natural Products Group has collected several thousand fungi from soil samples primarily obtained from three environmentally disparate regions: Alaska (artic/sub-arctic); Hawaii (tropical); and Oklahoma (subtropical/semi-arid). Despite these efforts, the team can only access a relatively slim portion of the available microbial diversity. This group predicts that a significant number of compounds with therapeutic potential await discovery from the untapped majority of the soils’ microbial inhabitants. For this reason, the Citizen Science Program is an important part of the discovery process. By teaming with citizen scientists, the public becomes an active participant in the search for new drugs.

“The public is very curious about science and many of the people I have spoken with are eager to join in the search for new bioactive compounds. With the public as part of the team, we are expanding the search for new medicinal agents to include many previously unexplored areas, as well as providing a means for informing people about how new drugs are discovered,” Cichewicz notes. “So far, results have been encouraging with samples arriving from as far away as California, Hawaii and Alaska. We are thrilled with the early response we have seen to this program, and we look forward to continuing our efforts with our citizen science partners from across the country.”

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