Ancient antibiotic-resistance proteins opens door to study

Published on: Feb 27, 2013

Scientists are reporting "laboratory resurrections" of several 2 billion to 3 billion year old proteins that are ancient ancestors of the enzymes that enable today's antibiotic-resistant bacteria to shrug off penicillins, cephalosporins and other modern drugs. The achievement, reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, opens the door to a scientific "replay" of the evolution of antibiotic resistance with an eye to finding new ways to cope with the problem, according to an announcement from the American Chemical Society.

Jose M. Sanchez-Ruiz, Eric A. Gaucher, Valeria A. Risso and colleagues explained that antibiotic resistance existed long before Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic in 1928. Genes that contain instructions for making the proteins responsible for antibiotic resistance have been found in 30,000-year-old permafrost sediment and other ancient sites. Their research focused on the so-called beta-lactamases, enzymes responsible for resistance to the family of antibiotics that includes penicillin, which scientists believe originated billions of years ago.

Sanchez-Ruiz et al. used laboratory and statistical techniques to reconstruct the sequences of beta-lactamase proteins dating to Precambrian times, 2 billion to 3 billion years ago. The team also synthesized the inferred ancestral enzymes and conducted studies on their stability, structure and function.

"The availability of laboratory resurrections of Precambrian beta-lactamases opens up new possibilities in the study of the emergence of antibiotic resistance," the journal article says. "For instance, it should now be possible to perform laboratory replays of the molecular tape of lactamase evolution and use such replays to probe the molecular determinants of the efficiency of lactamases to adapt to different types of antibiotics."

The researchers also noted that the extreme stability and catalytic features displayed by the ancient lactamases suggest that resurrected Precambrian proteins have utility for the biotechnology industry.