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Surveying gut bugs in the wild

Compounds from wild animals’ gut microbiomes could lead to new drugs

by Laura Howes
March 26, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 11


A photo of rhinoceroses, zebras, and springbok eating grass in their natural habitat.
Credit: Shutterstock
Researchers collected feces samples from the wild shortly after animals like these deposited them.

Scientists from drug discovery company Wild Biotech have surveyed the gut bugs of almost 200 species of animals in the wild. The findings have added genes from over 1,200 bacterial species to a database compiled by the company (Science 2021, DOI: 10.1126/science.abb5352). The database now contains over 100 million genes, which the researchers hope to mine for new drugs. To collect the new data, the researchers worked with local experts and guides at sites worldwide to find and sample the poop of wild animals within an hour of its being deposited. The researchers packaged the samples and shipped them to labs in Israel for genetic sequencing. Neta Raab, CEO of Wild Biotech, says the company focuses on wild animals because their guts can have unique bugs that help the animals survive in the wild. For example, she says, some wild animals can safely eat rotting meat. The researchers found previously undescribed enzymes in the microbiomes of carrion eaters. The researchers made these enzymes in the lab and found they degrade a range of microbial toxins. Perhaps in host animals, the enzymes make rotten meat safe for consumption, Raab says.


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