Research from Laurentian University in Sudbury is showing that waterbodies located within five kilometres of abandoned Northern Ontario mine sites could be a potential new source of antibiotics.
Led by Dr. J.A. Scott, a professor of bioengineering at the Bharti School of Engineering, the research was published in a recent issue of Phycologia, a journal that features work related to the scientific study of algae, or phycology.
Through his earlier work, Scott had studied microalgae to determine if they could be used to produce biofuel. But because of their beneficial attributes, he speculated the algae could also be used to produce health products, particularly antibiotics.
In the North, where there is an abundance of waterbodies impacted by decades of mining, he wondered if those stressed environments could produce algae with antibiotic properties.
“It’s like anything: our body only produces these extra things if we’re stressed, and algae are no different,” Scott said. “And because they’re living in a stressed environment, would antibiotics be possibly one of them?”
In 2011, he and his team visited 40 sites across Northern Ontario, close to mines that had long been abandoned, and took samples from nearby waterbodies. They then tested the algae in the water against various bacteria.
The results showed that, when tested against Staphylococcus aureus (a common, naturally occurring bacterium that can cause infections of the skin, lungs, brain or blood), 37.5 per cent of the algae was effective against it.
What’s more, the minimum concentrations of algae required to inhibit the bacterium were lower than in any previous reports. In other words, the antibacterial property Scott found is more potent than what’s been uncovered in previous research.
Scott called the results “exceptional.”
“I think this is probably one of the most exciting projects I've stumbled into,” he said.
From a broader perspective, the work is significant because, as bacteria become more resistant to existing antibiotics, new sources are needed, Scott said. He’s also trying to determine if antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids, which have been linked to health benefits, can be gleaned from the algae.
Perhaps even more exciting, from an industry perspective, is that it’s an opportunity to address the longstanding problem of how to deal with polluted water left behind by mining.
“I’m not saying algae is going to resolve the problem, but it’s part of this need to look elsewhere rather than the old traditional sources (of antibiotics),” he said. “People see these waterbodies as a nuisance, and a negative legacy could actually be a positive.”
With the initial results now published, Scott and his team will continue to further prove their hypothesis over the next two years, thanks to an additional round of funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence and Glencore’s Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations.
Scott can’t say for sure that mine sites or mining operations are exclusively the cause of the antibody-producing algae, so the next step is to further narrow down why the antibiotic properties occur. They may occur naturally, or perhaps climate or local geology plays a role.
He’s also examining waterbodies near currently producing mines – with Glencore’s full participation – to see if he can replicate the same results.
Ideally, if he can accurately pinpoint the conditions required for the algae to flourish, then he can identify those conditions in areas around the world and potentially find global sources for antibiotics.
“You can’t just go down to your local fish pond and somehow be guaranteed it’s going to cure everything. You have to narrow it down,” Scott said. “I want something that we can look at elsewhere, and use the techniques and the ideas we’ve developed to apply to other areas.”
Should his hunch prove itself out, Scott is “100 per cent” confident there will be opportunities to commercialize the findings.
But with the research still in the very preliminary stages, much more study is needed before the antibody-producing algae gets to the point it can be brought to market.
Still, Scott is confident his discovery is worth pursuing further, and he’s hoping to uncover more definitive answers within the next two years.
“If you look at algae, they’re under-researched compared to bacteria and fungus, particularly in this area, yet they produce more useful chemicals than any other plant,” he said.
“I actually want to develop products, and the goal is very much to see if there’s something of genuine commercial value here, ultimately, not just another academic blue sky project.”