The use of chemicals to maintain or improve human health is as old as recorded history. In recent times, the discovery and development of chemicals to kill or overcome bacteria or pathogens is regarded as one of the most significant medical achievements of the 20th century, and countless millions of human lives have been saved as a result. Natural products have been and remain the mainstay of medical treatments. Chemicals produced in nature, or compounds based on them, accounted for 65% of the 1211 small molecule drugs approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the 34 years from 1981 to 2014 [1
]. The wide and diverse range of microbial primary or secondary metabolites that possess potent and sometimes unique bioactivity, coupled with the enormous and as yet relatively untapped potential and promise they offer, will heavily influence and drive forward future antibiotic research, while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of prioritizing natural products discovery over the manufacturing of synthetic compounds [2
Penicillin was first used for human treatment in 1942, and it revolutionized the treatment of bacterial infections. It has since saved hundreds of millions of lives, as well as galvanizing the search for similar antibacterial or antimicrobial chemicals. As a result of the worldwide research effort, there was a flood of new antibiotics identified throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with the approval of several distinct novel classes of efficacious antibiotics for human use. However, since that “Golden Age”, the number of new antibiotics registered has steadily declined, and very few new classes of antibiotics have reached the marketplace and clinical use. In reality, scientific and economic factors will likely delay the appearance of any new antibiotics. From preclinical testing to approval for human use takes 10–15 years, and the costs involved are prohibitive [3
]. A recent analysis suggests that, in 2014, the actual cost of driving a new compound from concept to the marketplace was in excess of $
1.3 billion [5
]. Furthermore, approximately 1 in 1000 potential drugs proceed to clinical trials, and then almost 90% fail in the human testing phase. For example, in the antibiotic field, the prevailing dangerous lack of new antibiotics, coupled with the loss of effectiveness of many already being widely used, threatens a return to the pre-antibiotic era, and the reversal of the gains made in global public health during the 20th century, accompanied by the potential loss of millions of lives.
The world is fast waking up to this dreadful scenario, and in 2015, the World Health Assembly endorsed the Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance [6
]. This committed all member states to prepare national action plans and take proactive steps to promote the discovery, development, and sustainable exploitation of new antibiotics, especially those with novel modes of action. These commitments were reiterated by the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 [7
So how can we find the urgently needed drugs? We firmly believe that actinomycetes will prove to be the primary source of the desperately needed biological substances over the next 2–3 decades, and this publication contains substantial evidence to support that point of view.
The actinomycetes are a heterogeneous group of Gram-positive bacteria with high guanine (G) and cytosine (C) content in their DNA. They are extremely diverse, with at least 350 genera known to date. They constitute one of the largest bacterial phyla, and are ubiquitous in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Most (especially the streptomycetes are saprophytic, soil-dwelling organisms, but they are also found in fresh and salt water, and the air. They are typically present in soil at densities of 106
cells per gram of soil, with streptomycetes accounting for over 95% of all actinomycete strains isolated from soil [8
]. Many species are harmless to animals and higher plants, while some are important pathogens.
The actinomycetes, particularly species from the genus Streptomyces
, have proved to be a tremendous high-impact source of valuable chemicals. They have yielded many clinically essential antimicrobial compounds, including streptomycin, actinomycin, and streptothricin [9
]. Besides streptomycin (discovered in 1944 from Streptomyces griseus
), other examples of the success of this traditional discovery research approach are chloramphenicol (1947, S. venezuelae
), tetracycline (1948, S. rimosus
), erythromycin (1952, Saccharopolyspora erythraea
), leucomycin (1952, S. kitasatoensis
), and vancomycin (1956, S. orientales)
. Additionally, in 1963, gentamicin was discovered, isolated from M. purpurea
, a member of the Micromonospora
. This triggered the search for new compounds from the so-called “rare actinomycetes”, which are lower frequency of isolation than members of the genus Streptomyces
that are well isolated from soil. Compounds from the rare organisms include teicoplanin (1978, Actinoplanes teichomyceticus
), fortimicin (1977, M. olivoasterospora
), rosamicin (1972, M. rosaria
), and nocardicin (1976, Nocardia uniformis
). Incidentally, salinosporamide A, which holds promise for development of an anticancer drug, is produced by a strain of the genus Salinispora,
a rare actinomycete isolated from a heat-treated marine sediment sample [10
Approximately two-thirds of all known antibiotics are produced by actinomycetes, predominantly by Streptomyces
]. It is believed that the actinomycetes are the source of some 61% of all microorganism-derived bioactive substances so far discovered [11
], with 16% of the total originating from the “rare actinomycetes”, mostly from the Micromonosporaceae
, with additional smaller contributions from the Pseudonocardiaceae
. This suggests that rare actinomycetes are a valuable source of novel compounds, and that improved isolation strategies are required to increase the frequency in which they are isolated.
2. Historical Discovery of Novel Compounds from Actinomycetes by the Kitasato Ōmura-Drug Discovery Group
The Kitasato Institute has, since its inception, concentrated its investigations on soil dwelling microbes, particularly the actinomycetes, as a potential source of bioactive compounds. Up until the mid-1970s, the singular universally employed discovery process involved identifying microorganisms in soil (or other) samples, culturing them and then testing any primary or secondary metabolites or other chemicals they produced to identify predetermined bioactivity that would meet a human need.
Decades of success in our exploration of the actinomycetes is exemplified by the discovery in the Kitasato Institute by Satoshi Ōmura in the early-1970s of Streptomyces avermectinius
(synonym S. avermitilis
, the microbe which produces the avermectins [12
]. The avermectin derivative, ivermectin, is perhaps the world’s greatest, most effective, and safest drug for the treatment and prevention of a diverse range of human diseases and conditions [14
]. The importance and significance of the discovery and development of these compounds was recognized by the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine being awarded to Prof. Ōmura and Prof. William C. Campbell of Merck & Company, Inc., Kenilworth, NJ, USA, representing the industrial partner which has become essential for the discovery, development, production, marketing, and distribution process of all modern-day antibiotics. The award citation stated “William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura discovered a new drug, avermectin, the derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, as well as showing efficacy against an expanding number of other parasitic diseases” [15
]. The 2015 award was the third Nobel Prize given for discovery of an antibiotic, following those for penicillin (for Fleming, Florey, and Chain in 1945) and for streptomycin (for Waksman in 1952), the man who first coined the term “antibiotic”.
The discovery of ivermectin arose because of Ōmura’s unwavering belief that microorganisms are a limitless source of useful chemical compounds—“Microbes do not produce useless metabolites: we just have little knowledge of their usefulness for mankind” [17
], and because the partnership he set up between his group and Merck scientists were looking for specific anthelmintic compounds. Although ivermectin has proved to be a multifaceted, extremely effective chemical with a wide range of impacts, the original bioactivity screening focused almost predominantly on looking for an anthelmintic. Hence, that was what was found.
In the early-1970s, Ōmura decided to introduce an innovative new approach to drug discovery, namely to simply identify novel chemicals with no fixed goal in mind, carry out preliminary assays and evaluations, catalog and store both the chemicals and the producing microorganisms, and make the chemicals available for others to assay for all variety of bioactivity, or for use as biological or chemical reagents. This novel process was referred to as physicochemical (PC) screening.
As members of the Kitasato Institute for Life Sciences’ Drug Discovery Group, with Satoshi Ōmura as team leader, we have long and extensive experience in the search for novel compounds derived from microorganisms. Our cohesive integrated research program now encompasses the following three foci:
Isolation of microorganisms, identification, and microbial cultivation.
Discovery of substances from microbial metabolites.
Optimization of compounds by organic synthesis.
Latterly, our isolation work has been significantly refocused. We are now investigating existing but hitherto underutilized actinomycetes which exist in storage. We have also switched our attention from soil dwelling microbes to the exploration of microorganisms living in the complex environments found in the immediate vicinity of plant roots. We quickly discovered that whereas more than 90% of actinomycetes isolated from soil are Streptomyces
strains, the rare actinomycetes dominate in strains isolated from plant roots. Currently, some 642 strains of actinomycetes have been isolated from 16 plant root locations, about 80% of which are rare. Two new genera (Phytohabitans sufuscus
and Rhizocola hellebori
) plus seven new species have, so far, been proposed through taxonomic study of these strains [19
In our case, the discovery of useful microbial chemicals has been facilitated and accelerated by employing a two-pronged approach. Initially, using the traditional method attempting to acquire a new compound with a preconceived specific biological activity; more recently by identifying any and all novel substances by detecting and exploiting the basic physical and chemical properties and structural features of compounds. This bifurcated approach, both mechanisms of which are ongoing in Kitasato University, has led to the discovery of over 500 compounds, most of which were found using the original method [22
In the mid-1970s, PC screening was introduced initially using Dragendorff’s reagent to identify nitrogen-containing compounds (alkaloids) which would cause a simple, visible color change. Staurosporine [23
] was discovered as the first indolocarbazole compound from the culture broth of Saccharothrix aerocolonigenes
] (renamed Lentzea albida
in 2002 [25
]) in 1977, using this method. We initially determined that the compound possessed antifungal properties, and demonstrated a hypotensive effect. Nine years after discovery, in 1986, another research group discovered that staurosporine was a nanomolar inhibitor of protein kinases, as assessed by the prevention of ATP binding to the kinase [26
]. This interesting biological activity stimulated an explosion in exploratory research for selective protein kinase inhibitors by numerous laboratories and pharmaceutical companies worldwide, staurosporine becoming the parent compound for many of today’s highly-successful anticancer agents. This example helps to illustrate that all substances produced by microbes may be of great benefit, and that they should be examined for potential use in all forms of human endeavor, especially for use in modern medicine, and that they should be made available for exhaustive testing and use by all, wherever practical and possible.
We now routinely search for novel chemicals from actinomycetes by analyzing a range of physico-chemical properties, such as LC/MS, LC/UV and polarity. It is now possible to predict whether a new substance is present by analyzing results and comparing with existing databases. This approach has so far identified some 36 novel compounds (including analogs) [28
]. In this report, we describe these results, and discuss the ability of actinomycetes to produce a wide spectrum of novel chemicals, as well as draw attention to the diversity of metabolites that a single microbial strain can provide for us.
3. Novel Compounds Discovered by Physicochemical (PC) Screening of Cultured Broths of Actinomycetes
The novel compounds derived from actinomycetes discovered through our PC screening during the past eight years are displayed in Table 1
. The compounds are accompanied by the name of the producing microorganism, their original source, the primary biological activity of the compound and relevant publications. The PC screening procedure was carried out as follows.
After cultivation in 10 mL of several kinds of preset media, an equivalent amount of ethanol was added, the ingredients were thoroughly mixed, the cells were then disrupted, and the ethanol extract was subjected to PC screening.
After LC/MS and LC/UV analysis, each peak recorded was compared with known data from the Dictionary of Natural Products, and our own database. A peak was predicted to be a novel substance. When this was the case, we scaled up the culture and isolated and purified the target compound using column chromatography and preparative HPLC. After obtaining the unique compound, its structure was determined by high-resolution mass spectrometry, NMR, etc. The new compounds underwent preliminary bioassays, either in-house or in established collaborative research projects with other groups.
Identification of the strains being cultured was carried out using morphological characteristics, chemical composition in cells, and phylogenetic analysis based on 16S rRNA gene sequences.
The Kitasato Ōmura-Drug Discovery Group has already discovered avermectin [14
], staurosporine [23
], herbimycin [29
], setamycin [30
], and lactacystin [31
] from secondary metabolites of actinomycetes [22
]. The actinomycete strains producing these compounds (as well as strains producing a variety of other chemicals) have all been catalogued, freeze-dried, and stored in the Kitasato Microbial Library (KML). In an effort to respond to the urgent global demand for new antibiotics, we have recently revived the KML strains to confirm their viability, the continuance of compound production, and the reliability of the preservation process. Survival rates and compound productivity maintenance rates have been good, but specific data in this respect will be reported elsewhere. During this work, PC screening was carried out on culture broths of 330 strains, resulting in the discovery of several new compounds (No. 1 to No. 3 in Table 1
With respect to the three entries in question, the name of the original compound and retention period by lyophilization are stated, all three having been stored for 35 years or more. The compounds recently discovered, namely bisoxazolomycin [32
], the iminimycins [33
], and the nanaomycins [35
], would probably not have been detected by an assay system seeking a specific bioactive property, the compounds being found as a direct result of PC screening. Discovery of the iminimycins and nanaomycins are described in detail below in Section 4.2
With respect to new isolates (No. 4 to No. 13 in Table 1
), actinomycete strains isolated from around the roots of plants (No. 4 to No. 7), sediment from mangrove forests (No. 8 to No. 10), sea sediment (No. 11), and soil samples (No. 12 & No. 13) are listed. Actinoallolides [37
], hamuramicins [38
], spoxazomicins [39
], and trehangelins [41
] were discovered from endophytic actinomycete strains, and these are classified as rare actinomycetes. The mangromicins [43
], K10-0216 KA and KB [46
], and pyrizomicins [47
], which have differing core structures, were found in a culture broth of Lechevalieria aerocolonigenes
K10-0216 isolated from sediment from mangroves. Mumiamicin [48
] was found in an actinomycete strain isolated from sea sediment, while sagamilactam [49
] and the dipyrimicins [50
] originated in actinomycete strains from soil. In Section 5.1
, we describe, in detail, the discovery of other compounds, notably the trehangelins from Polymorphospora rubra
K07-0510 and compounds from Lechevalieria aerocolonigenes
Assays of the 36 compounds, involving collaboration with other research groups, led to the discovery of varying bioactivity, as shown in Table 1
. These results help demonstrate the usefulness and cost/time effectiveness of PC screening, as well as the potential diversity of metabolites produced by a single microorganism. The outcome clearly demonstrates that, as Prof Ōmura rightly opines, “microorganisms are a treasure trove of new natural products”.
This report describes compounds derived from actinomycete strains which were found via PC screening between 2011–2017 by the Kitasato Ōmura-Drug Discovery Group. Iminimycins and nanaomycins were found from culture broths of conserved KML strains, while the trehangelins from P. rubra K07-0510 and new compounds, mangromicins, K10-0216 KA and KB, pyrizomicin A and B, from L. aelocolonigenes K10-0216, originated in fresh isolates. Our results illustrate that PC screening can unearth novel compounds that are not likely to be discovered through traditional targeted bioassay systems. Genomic analysis of actinomycetes has found that more than 30 secondary metabolite biosynthetic genes may be involved in chemical production, depending on the strain. However, knowing the genetic production mechanism may not necessarily make obtaining the compound easier.
This report also shows that it is possible to obtain a novel compound from actinomycete species, such as Streptomyces griseus, that has already undergone long and intensive study. In addition, as in the case of L. aerocolonigenes K10-0216, a variety of compounds with significantly different skeletons can be obtained from a single culture broth using only one microbe strain.
Our work also demonstrates that the aptly classified “rare actinomycetes” remain a unique and, so far, relatively unexploited source of potentially useful chemicals. This is supported by work that found that strains of the genus Actinoallomurus
(a rare actinomycete) have high secondary metabolite production capacity [62
]. We also found five actinoallolide analogs [37
] (shown in Table 1
) produced by A. fulvus
MK 10-036 and A. fulvus
K 09-0307, later discovering two more new compounds together with seven known compounds from an A. fulvus
Microorganisms can present us with interesting compounds with unique structures which our current scientific knowledge and expertise cannot easily predict nor easily replicate. For example, the mangromicins have unique skeletons which subsequently attracted attention in the field of organic synthesis. Organic chemists tried to devise a total synthesis of mangromicin A, and finally managed to achieve it via a complicated and lengthy 30 step process [63
], whereas L. aerocolonigenes
K10-0216 produces the compound naturally during culturing.
To illustrate the immeasurable scope for success in this respect, it has been reported that 99% of microorganisms in nature have not yet been isolated [64
]. Furthermore, our results suggest that interesting compounds can be found even from Streptomyces
strains that are thought to have been exhausted, simply by devising new identification methods or culture conditions. It is therefore essential to revisit existing actinomycetes, common and rare, and comprehensively examine them for new compounds.
Traditionally, the search for useful natural products has been advanced using approaches that focus on specific biological activity and target molecules. In this approach, there is a clearly defined goal. However, with this method alone, it is likely that many of the microorganisms isolated have been exploited and then discarded without fully utilizing their abilities. It is clearly difficult to devise a wide variety of screening systems and, certainly, almost impossible for all these systems to be operational in a single institution. Consequently, extensive, multifaceted research collaborations will need to be established to work towards full and comprehensive testing of all chemicals, be they newly isolated from existing compound libraries or from new sources. Naturally, many obstacles will need to be overcome, including protection of Intellectual Property Rights, transfer of technology, and capacity building aspects. None of these should be insurmountable, especially so if the goal of getting as many new bioactive substances in the shortest time possible is to be achieved.
We remain firm in our commitment to discover as many new compounds as possible by exploiting the ability of microorganisms, especially the actinomycetes, to produce such attractive substances. Moreover, we will continue to follow a twin-pronged approach to this task, while striving to devise other alternative screening methods, and adopt any other measures that could help expedite the research and development process.