A radically simple idea may open the door to a new world of antibiotics

Carl Zimmer via StatNews:

BOSTON — Slava Epstein works in aggressively low-tech quarters at Northeastern University. You might expect otherwise, given the extraordinary work that he and his colleagues are doing, discovering new kinds of antibiotics that are fundamentally different than the ones doctors prescribe today.

And yet, when I paid Epstein a visit recently, we sat down amid a veritable landfill of scientific reprints, old Starbucks cups, and empty bottles of Vitamin Water.

“I apologize for the awful, awful mess,” he said in a light Russian accent.

Reaching into the jetsam on his desk, Epstein fished out a metal washer the size of a beer coaster. The hole at the center was sealed with two disk-shaped membranes. He showed it off for a little while, and then he retrieved three black boxes. They had perforations on their sides and were each about the size and shape of a stick of chewing gum. Finally, Epstein unearthed a cast-off box originally used for storing pipette tips. One side was open, and the other was lined with a membrane sheet.

These are the tools that Epstein and his colleagues have used to make scientific headlines. And they’re cheap. The hacked pipette tip box costs less than $10 to make. “You could build this in your garage,” he said, turning the box over in his hand.

Behind these cheap items there’s a powerful idea. Bacteria make antibiotics naturally, which means that if you can grow new bacteria in a lab, the microbes can offer up new drugs. Unfortunately, for the past century, microbiologists have failed to unlock the secret to cultivating the vast majority of bacterial species.

Now Epstein and his colleagues have found a way to make many of them thrive.

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