Discovering New Antibiotics via Biotechnology

Environmental Science


Antibiotics have been crucial in combating bacterial infections since the discovery of penicillin in 1928. Antibiotics work by inhibiting bacterial growth or killing bacteria, making them essential in treating bacterial infections. However, overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, making it difficult to treat infections that were once easily treatable. Therefore, there is a need to discover new antibiotics to combat emerging bacterial infections.

Challenges in Discovering New Antibiotics

Discovering new antibiotics has become increasingly challenging due to several reasons. Firstly, the majority of antibiotics have already been discovered, making it difficult to find new compounds with antimicrobial properties. Secondly, bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to existing antibiotics, reducing the effectiveness of treatment options. Finally, the traditional method of discovering antibiotics involves screening natural compounds, which is time-consuming and often yields compounds that are toxic or have low activity.

Biotechnology as a Solution

Biotechnology offers the potential to discover new antibiotics in a more efficient and effective manner. Biotechnology involves the use of living organisms or their products to develop new drugs. Biotechnology can be used to identify new targets for antibiotics and to create novel compounds through genetic modification or chemical synthesis. Biotechnology can also be used to improve the production of existing antibiotics to make them more effective.

Methods of Discovering New Antibiotics via Biotechnology

There are several methods of discovering new antibiotics via biotechnology, including genetic engineering, metagenomics, and synthetic biology.

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering involves modifying the DNA of an organism to produce a compound with antimicrobial properties. This can be achieved by introducing a gene from one organism into another to produce a compound that the second organism would not normally produce. Genetic engineering can also be used to modify existing antibiotics to improve their effectiveness.

  • Example: In 2019, researchers at the University of Illinois used genetic engineering to create a new antibiotic called halicin. They introduced the gene for halicin production into Escherichia coli bacteria, which do not normally produce halicin. The resulting bacteria were able to produce halicin, which was found to be effective against a range of bacteria, including drug-resistant strains.


Metagenomics involves the analysis of the genetic material from environmental samples, such as soil, water, and human microbiomes, to discover new antibiotics. The genetic material is sequenced and analyzed to identify potential antibiotic-producing organisms and genes. Metagenomics has the advantage of being able to identify potential antibiotic producers that are difficult or impossible to culture in the laboratory.

  • Example: In 2015, researchers from Northeastern University discovered a new antibiotic called teixobactin using metagenomics. They analyzed soil samples and identified a new species of bacteria called Eleftheria terrae that produced teixobactin. Teixobactin was found to be effective against a range of bacteria, including drug-resistant strains.

Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology involves designing and creating new biological systems or modifying existing ones to produce new compounds with antimicrobial properties. Synthetic biology can be used to design new biosensors for detecting bacteria and to create new metabolic pathways for producing antibiotics.

  • Example: In 2018, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley used synthetic biology to create a biosensor for detecting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They genetically engineered the bacteria Escherichia coli to produce a fluorescent protein in the presence of tetracycline, a commonly used antibiotic. The biosensor was able to detect low levels of tetracycline in environmental samples, indicating the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.


Discovering new antibiotics is essential in combating emerging bacterial infections. Biotechnology offers a more efficient and effective way of discovering new antibiotics. Genetic engineering, metagenomics, and synthetic biology are some of the methods of discovering new antibiotics via biotechnology. With further research and development, biotechnology has the potential to revolutionize the discovery of new antibiotics and reduce the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.