Researchers just discovered a trove of actinobacteria that may help combat HIV in one of the driest places here on Earth.

International scientists from Chile, England, and Scotland found actinobacteria in soil samples taken from the Cerro Chajnantor mountain landscape in the Atacama Desert, one of the two coastal deserts in the world. According to the study that the team published in the academic journal Extremophiles, the trove of bacteria can potentially be used in creating treatments for diseases such as HIV.

According to the researchers, the location where the microorganisms were taken appears to be an extraordinary repository for actinobacterial ‘dark matter.’

“The Atacama Desert is the most extreme, non-polar biome on Earth considered to represent the dry limit for life and thought to be similar to soils on Mars,” Professor Michael Goodfellow, a Senior Research Investigator from the Newcastle University in England, explained.

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“This study focused on actinobacteria as they are keystone species in our ecosystems and are acknowledged as an unrivaled source of bioactive compounds. Surprisingly, we found that this landscape is an extraordinary repository for actinobacterial ‘dark matter’ — which comprises the vast majority of microbes that microbiologists are currently unable to cultivate.”

It is particularly interesting that there is so much ‘dark matter’ in Atacama Desert soils, which until recently were thought to be devoid of life.”

Discovering Actinobacteria and the ‘Dark Matter’

Actinobacteria are microorganisms from the phylum of Gram-positive bacteria. While this bacterial group can be either terrestrial or aquatic, they are widely known for their many contributions to soil systems.

It was found that 40 percent of the actinobacteria from the soil samples taken within the Atacama Desert can’t be given “ascribed names” as they have never been seen or discovered before. Thus, putting them in the classification of biological dark matter or microorganisms that are unclassified or poorly misunderstood.

“We found that 40 percent of the actinobacteria captured in samples could not be given ascribed names as they had never before been discovered,” Goodfellow further explained. “This microbial seed bank represents an enormous untapped resource for biotechnology programmes, especially in an era where resistance to existing antibiotics is rapidly becoming a major threat to global health.”

The researchers also found that one strain of the bacteria is an inhibitor of an enzyme that allows HIV viruses from reproducing themselves. This discovery could provide potential clues that could pave the way for the development of anti-HIV drugs.

Dr. Roy Sanderson, a Lecturer in Biological Modelling at Newcastle University said:

“The data in this paper are among the first relating to the microbiology of very dry, very high altitude deserts. They provide important base-line information on the structure of actinobacterial communities in soils. We hope they will be used as a springboard for further research to benefit landscapes and people around the world.”

For their study, Goodfellow and his colleagues analyzed soil samples taken from the heights of 3,000 to 5,000 meters above sea level of the Cerro Chajnantor landscape within the Atacama Desert. The place is said to be exposed to a combination of extreme environmental conditions which include the world’s highest level of surface Ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Are we finally looking at a future cure for HIV? What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!

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