#parent | #kids | Queensland researchers are sampling your soil to solve deadly antibiotic resistance threat


Nine-year-old Josh Webb has started looking at the dirt in his backyard differently. 

“I thought dirt was just like nothing, it was just like a thing that someone just steps on,” Josh said.

That was until Josh, with his younger sister Charlie, 6, and their mum Sussanah Osborne, discovered the Soils for Science project at the World Science Festival held in Brisbane last month.

The project is an initiative of the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, which is calling on people across the country to collect samples of soil from their backyard.

Josh and Charlie are still waiting to get the results from their soil sample.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Edwina Seselja

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Researchers are analysing the microbes in the soil, such as bacteria and fungi, in the hope of discovering the world’s next antibiotics and potentially save millions of people dying from infections. 

If researchers can uncover what chemicals microbes have developed to protect themselves against harmful bacteria, the same chemicals could be used to protect us as well. 

Two researchers stand in a lab, one is holding an agar plate with bacteria on it.
The study is being led by research fellow Dr Zeinab Khalil and group leader Professor Rob Capon.(

Supplied: Institute for Molecular Bioscience

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‘We’re helping out’

Taking home a soil kit with a spade and specially marked sample bags, Josh and Charlie got to work straight away.

“That night, once we got home, we went straight out to the garden and dug it up,” Sussanah said.

“So we were very keen … and there was a bit of fighting over who got to do the digging.”

A woman and her two young children couch on the nature strip, looking at an app on her phone.
Through the Soils for Science app, users can see where other samples have been taken from around the country.(

ABC Radio Brisbane: Edwina Seselja

)

The trio then took a photo of the bag’s barcode to geo-tag their sample using the Soil for Science app, before sending their soil off to be tested.

“I felt excited … we’re helping out and I like helping out,” Josh said.

Once their soil is tested, the family will receive a photo, showing them the microbes living in their backyard. 

Professor Ian Henderson is the director for the Institute for Molecular Bioscience  and said the contribution kids like Josh and Charlie would help researchers immensely. 

“What people probably don’t understand, is that most medicines and cures for diseases aren’t actually made by scientists sitting in research labs with sort of molecular hammers and tongs, bashing chemicals together,” Professor Henderson said.

Samples of soil in agar plates, showing the microbes that live in the soil.
This small collection of samples shows the diversity across Australia’s soil.(

Supplied: Institute for Molecular Bioscience

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“What we’re trying to do is sample that bacterial life that lives in the soil, around Australia, and get as much diversity of that as we can to try and tease apart the chemicals [the bacteria are] making and hopefully use that to actually make new medicines.”

“If you think about the really common medicines you might take: penicillin and antibiotics, they actually come from bacteria that are living in the soil.” 

Antibiotic resistance 

According to the institute about 1 million people die of bacterial infection each year and a further 2.5 million die from fungal infection. 

If the modelling by British economist Lord Jim O’Neill is correct, that figure is set to rise significantly within a few decades.

Existing bacteria that cause disease are becoming increasingly resistant to the antibiotics used in hospitals and prescribed by doctors today. 

Professor Henderson said if we could not treat disease and infection, medicine would regresses to where it was 100 years ago.

“If you live in the western world, you have access to healthcare, whereas if you live in the third world, you may not have options, you won’t have access to other medical interventions that could save you life,” he said.

A man in a suit sits at his desk, smiling, with this hands places together in front of him.
Professor Ian Henderson is the director for the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at University of Queensland.(

Supplied: Institute for Molecular Bioscience

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Professor Henderson said in the western world, antibiotic use can seem out of sight.

“I want you to imagine what the world without antibiotics would look like, ” he said.

“It means that you can’t have that cesarean section when you’re giving birth.

“It means that your mum and your dad can’t have those cancer treatments because they’re going to destroy their immune systems and they’re going to become susceptible to infection. 

“It means that you can’t have that transplant because when you have that surgery you become susceptible to infection. 

Professor Henderson said the responsibility to discover the next antibiotics has largely fallen to universities because there isn’t the financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies. 

“To be honest, we’ve become addicted to cheap antibiotics,” he said. 

“We don’t appear as a society to be willing to fork out more than $5.00 $6.00 for a course of antibiotics that will save your life.” 

Why Australian soil?

Despite having a lot of it, Australia’s soil is uncharted territory when it comes to looking for potential antibiotics.

“People really haven’t analysed Australian nature in this way before or at this scale that we’re trying to achieve,” Professor Henderson said.

“You think just about Queensland. There are 1.7 million square kilometres in Queensland.”

“Even if we had one sample from each square kilometre … we wouldn’t be sampling the diversity of even just Queensland.”

Professor Henderson said that’s why the institute was harnessing “the power of people” to help collect soil.

Sowing the seeds for a career in STEM

Sussanah is an engineer and scientist herself and she and husband Alister Webb were eager to see their children build their interest in STEM subjects. 

Engaging young people in science is an area that Professor Henderson is personally passionate about with the next phrase of the protect aiming to up-skill school teaches in the field. 

“The potential then is for them to take that expertise back to the schools , run this through the whole curriculum from primary through to secondary,” Professor Henderson said.

A young family pose for a photo in their garden.
Sussanah Osborne and Alister Webb would like to see their children’s interest in STEM subjects grow.(

ABC Radio Brisbane: Edwina Seselja

)

“You can show kids, relatively quickly, simply by digging up soil and putting it in an agar plate that there is stuff growing in it. 

“But you can extend that further, you can get them to grow those bugs that are on the plate up and get the DNA out.”

“You can actually now give teachers DNA sequencers so they can actually sequence the DNA in the school.

“You can see biodiversity,  microbiology, you can see chemistry, you can see DNA and genetics.”



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