We are creating a unified UKRI website that brings together the existing research council, Innovate UK and Research England websites.
If you would like to be involved in its development let us know.

Site search
Back to blog

From deep-sea sponges to dragonfly wings: Superbug research from unexpected places

by Guest Author on 12 Nov 2018

From the Atlantic Ocean to our own backyards, our researchers have been hunting high and low for inspiration to help better understand and tackle superbugs. For World Antibiotic Awareness Week Jonathan Pearce, MRC’s Head of Infections and Immunity, highlights some of the remarkable interdisciplinary teams carrying out this fascinating research.

Today, more than ever, we’re aware of antibiotic resistance as a growing, global problem that desperately needs an answer. According to recent reports, by 2050 superbugs could kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined.

Petri dishes showing bacteria cultures.

Over the past five years alone, in partnership with the other UKRI councils, we’ve made huge efforts to better understand this threat and find solutions –  together investing £44 million in 78 UK projects and £41 million in projects worldwide. Collaboration helps fire up imagination, insight and innovation. That’s why we’ve brought together researchers with different skills and experiences across the sciences, engineering, arts and humanities.

Understanding emergence and spread

Some of the deadliest bacterial species that have acquired antibiotic resistance live in the guts of all mammals. Understanding how these bacteria can travel between animals and humans, through the food chain, and across manmade and natural environments, is the first step in our battle against antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

For this reason, a ‘One Health’ consortium of UK and Thai researchers are examining the potential drivers of AMR in the Mae Klong-Ta Chin Basin. The region has been picked for its incredible diversity of landscapes, populations and land use. There are villages, towns and industrial zones, with communities of varying socio-economic and education levels, fish farms, fruit orchards and rice paddies.

Closer to home, a team from the Universities of Warwick and Exeter and the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology have scrutinised 69 areas of the river Thames and discovered high levels of drug-resistant bacteria near some wastewater treatment works, showing how easily resistance can spread when we flush our loo.

Making the invisible visible

At the Glasgow School of Art, architecture and design researchers have developed an interactive tablet-based tool that can help doctors and nurses ‘see’ the journeys bacteria take through a hospital environment. Bringing the invisible to life in this way means clinicians can come up with simple but effective changes to the way they do things to halt the spread of life-threatening infections.

New drugs from deep-sea delving

As well as increasing our understanding of antibiotic resistance, it’s crucial we continue to hunt for undiscovered antibiotics. A University of Bristol team has identified a sea sponge living 2km below the Atlantic ocean that has the potential to fight one of the most common superbugs found in hospitals, MRSA. The team are now investigating how it responds to the human body to see if it can be used as an effective treatment in future.

A fluorescent signal

Globally, each year around 20 million patients in intensive care need machines to help them breathe, and many of these patients are treated with antibiotics. The Proteus Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration, led by researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Bath, and Heriot-Watt University, are developing a bedside imaging tool that can detect whether harmful inflammation is present in a patient’s lungs in less than a minute.

The technology uses a chemical probe, originally developed with funding from the MRC, with fibre-optic tubes that are small enough to be threaded deep inside a patient’s lungs. The probe targets white blood cells that help the body fight off infection and if inflammatory cells are detected the probe causes them to light up. Detecting and identifying inflammation in this simple and quick way could help reduce the use of unnecessary antibiotics and speed up recovery in the most seriously ill patients.

Electron micrograph of a K. pneumoniae bacterium. The envelope has been penetrated by titanium dioxide nano-structures.

Electron micrograph of a K. pneumoniae bacterium. The envelope has been penetrated by titanium dioxide nano-structures. Image credit: Josh Jenkins.

Insect inspiration for reducing infection

A team at Bristol Dental School has been inspired by the antibacterial properties of cicada and dragonfly wings. They’re replicating their bacteria-killing nano-spiked surfaces in materials such as titanium and polymer with the aim of using them for common medical implants. With a rapidly ageing population and nearly a quarter of a million hip replacements already taking place in the UK each year, stopping infection in its tracks in this way would reduce patient trauma and save the NHS millions of pounds.

Infographic about dragonfly wings example of innovation to catch superbugs

This kind of innovative, collaborative research across the globe is enabling us to gain a much deeper understanding of how and why AMR emerges and spreads. The decision-making and behavioural changes we can make as a result of this understanding could have a huge impact on food security, poverty, pollution and human health. And we’ll continue to develop creative ideas for how we can better prevent, diagnose and treat infections. There are many more innovative advances on the horizon.


Exploring unconventional alternatives should be applauded. Out of the box thinking may indeed be what is necessary as a viable antibiotic alternative. Until then:
The team has just eradicated Cdiff from a 400 bed hospital with 96% occupancy. It took 18 days but tested ‘clear’ on completion To my mind, this is the only ‘go-to’ to deal with situations such as this.

author avatar by Paul O'Hara on 23-Nov-2018 10:57

Think about an organism that possessed the ability to copy, store, and translate the genes of other organisms, An organism with powerful stem cells that can exist as a single cell, that’s the sea sponge, Scientists need to open their minds and think about this idea, it’s the mother of all theories. The organisms that live in sponges are products of it not symbionts.

author avatar by steve a frey on 30-Nov-2018 06:32

Leave a reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


From category

Share this: