Researchers report in the journal Nature that they have made a breakthrough in understanding how a powerful antibiotic agent is made in nature. Their discovery solves a decades-old mystery, and opens up new avenues of research into thousands of similar molecules, many of which are likely to be medically useful.
The team focused on a class of compounds that includes dozens with antibiotic properties. The most famous of these is nisin, a natural product in milk that can be synthesized in the lab and is added to foods as a preservative. Nisin has been used to combat foodborne pathogens since the late 1960s.
Researchers have long known the sequence of the nisin gene, and they can assemble the chain of amino acids (called a peptide) that are encoded by this gene. But the peptide undergoes several modifications in the cell after it is made, changes that give it its final form and function. Researchers have tried for more than 25 years to understand how these changes occur.