Research Highlights

Mining marine microbe genomes for novel drugs

Published online 22 May 2019

Metabolites synthesized by Red Sea microbes might have anti-bacterial and anti-cancer effects.

Islam Elkholi

Specialized gene clusters coding for metabolite formation in microbes living in deep Red Sea salty pools show potential for use in anti-bacterial and anti-cancer drug development1 .

Specialized metabolism gene clusters (SMGCs) play a role in microorganism survival in harsh environments and have been used in antibiotic drug development.  

Researchers from the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt, screened genomic data previously obtained from water and sediment samples in deep, salty pools in the Red Sea to identify novel SMGCs. Using computational methods, they were able to suggest four SMGC groups that probably code for metabolites with anti-bacterial or anti-cancer actions.

There is a desperate need for new drugs to combat drug resistance, especially against antibiotics and chemotherapies. 

“Compounds for the development of novel enzymes, biocatalysts, and drugs can be found from our surrounding environment,” says microbiologist, Rania Siam of the AUC. “The Red Sea is a useful resource that we can resort to for finding solutions to contemporary issues, like industrial contamination and drug resistance," she adds.

In a previous study2 , the team tested the effect of another set of microbial gene cluster products obtained from the Red Sea on cancer cell lines and bacterial strains. 

The products killed cancer cells without affecting healthy normal cells, suggesting their potential as anti-cancer bioactive materials, and validating this approach for the identification of novel drugs. 

Further studies and chemical characterization of these substances and the newly identified SMGCs are needed before transitioning into the next level of drug development.


  1. Ziko, L., et al. Insights into Red Sea brine pool specialized metabolism gene clusters encoding potential metabolites for biotechnological applications and extremophile survival. Mar. Drugs 17, 273 (2019). 
  2. Ziko, L. et al. Antibacterial and anticancer activities of orphan biosynthetic gene clusters from Atlantis II Red Sea brine pool. Microb. Cell Fact. 18, 56 (2019).