Native plants could provide new antibiotics

A Lethbridge researcher has already extracted molecules that show an ability to fight staphylococcus and acinetobacter

Sources for life-saving new antibiotics could be growing beneath our feet on the prairie, foothill and mountain landscapes that are home to native plants.

Antibiotics that have been in use since Alexander Fleming first discovered penicillin in 1928 are all derived from bacteria and fungi. Sophie Kerneis, a microbiologist and senior researcher at Lethbridge College, is looking to native plants for potential keys to new antibiotics that can prevent and fight infection.

She and her research team have already found a promising candidate.

They’ve isolated two molecules from one particular plant extract that both show antibiotic properties when tested against staphylococcus and acinetobacter.

Kerneis is not ready to reveal which plant, except to say “they are common plants that we are collecting in the coulees and in the Crowsnest Pass also.”

She and her students involved in applied research projects at Lethbridge College are building a library of native plants developed through painstaking collection and preparation of extracts from stems, flowers and leaves.

She now has 89 extracts from 16 plant families, and in collaboration with the laboratories at the University of Lethbridge, Kerneis has access to 300 extracts from 22 plant families.

“Now we know that we have plants in the coulees that have antibiotic properties,” she said.

Researcher Roy Golsteyn, cancer researcher and biology professor at the U of L who is also Kerneis’ spouse, has found promising cancer treatments within prairie plants, among them the common buffalo bean.

When Kerneis started research at the college, she turned her attention to antibiotics, a particular concern given that many bacteria have developed resistance to the existing arsenal of treatments.

“When I was starting this project, I looked and I thought, ‘well, it’s crazy that no antibiotics come from plants.’ We know that some plants all over the world can have some antibiotic properties, but we have not isolated the molecule.”

It’s easier and faster to grow bacteria and fungi than plants, she said, which likely has something to do with it. Though many drugs are derived from plants, antibiotics aren’t among them.

“For me, it makes sense to look at antibiotics from different sources,” she said.

“If you don’t try, you don’t find. We have proven that it’s possible to do because we have these two molecules already.”

As concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria continue to grow, interest in finding new antibiotics has increased exponentially. It’s been years since the last one was developed, in part because interest and funding waned when penicillin and similar antibiotics proved effective and became widely used.

As well, said Kerneis, it is more lucrative for the drug industry to develop treatments for illnesses that require long-term or lifetime use, such as cancer and diabetes, as opposed to antibiotics that are taken for a shorter time until the infection clears.

That lag has proven costly.

“They predict that if we don’t do anything, there will be 10 million people dying of … infection (by 2050), so it’s very important that we try, and that we push this type of discovery,” she said.

Estimates already indicate that about 700,000 people worldwide die each year from conditions related to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Bacteria may develop resistance to any new antibiotics as well, said Kerneis, but that can take years and in the meantime infections can be treated or prevented.

She and her team test the extracts against one member from each of the large bacteria families. Staphylococcus is a gram-positive bacteria and acinetobacter is gram-negative, the type proven harder to kill.

“As you can imagine, when we find an extract that has activity against one or the other, we can also test other bacteria,” said Kerneis.

Collaboration with other labs allows testing against a wider array of pathogens when extracts look promising.

She has also extended collaboration to First Nations people who have knowledge about various plants’ medicinal properties.

As her research continues, Kerneis is seeking access to private land where she and her students can collect plant samples and widen their study. She can be reached at

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