Cell biology Chemistry

Bacteria make complex antibiotics that give chemists “cold sweats”

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bacteria easily produce this “chemists’ nightmare” molecular structure

From Josh Bloom at American Council for Science and Health:

I recently wrote about three of the deadly neurotoxins being produced by cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae) during an ongoing algae bloom in South Florida (See Florida’s Deadly Algae Bloom – Why Is It So Dangerous?). The toxins range from structurally simple and easy for organic chemists to synthesize in the lab to moderately complex and not simple at all.

But there are numerous examples of plants, marine organisms, and bacteria that easily biosynthesize molecules that are so complex and difficult to make synthetically that chemistry grad students and post-docs who were given the unenviable task of doing so are probably still waking up in cold sweats thinking about what they went through decades earlier. Pity the unfortunate souls who were given the unenviable task of trying to synthesize monensin (Figure 1), an insanely complex ionophore antibiotic (1) that was first isolated in 1967 from Streptomyces cinnamonensis, but not synthesized in the lab until 12 years later (2,3,4). More.

Well, on the principle of “it takes one to know one,” we might expect that bacteria can do all that — provided we are not expecting them to just happen to stumble across it by trial and error accompanied by large doses of fatality.

One wonders how much difference is made by horizontal gene transfer, treating the genome as a Creative Commons instead of—as we have formerly been told—guarding it as a treasure chest of “selfish genes,”

If the extent of horizontal gene transfer were grasped, would anyone take the concept of the selfish gene seriously?

See also: Attempt to explain the assembly of the bacterial flagellum, “a complex process involving more than 70 genes”

Bacterial murder rivals and steal their genes (There. That was simple.)

and

Symbiosis of life forms “almost hilariously complicated”

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