Meet the scientist developing antibiotics from tree-dwelling ants

Scientist standing outside

Professor Matt Hutchings is a group leader at the John Innes Centre - Credit: Jake Newitt

Our medicines are becoming increasingly ineffective as pathogens that cause infectious diseases evolve. Professor Matt Hutchings, a group leader at the John Innes Centre (JIC), explains how his research team is working to discover new antibiotics that could be instrumental in the fight against antimicrobial resistance. 

Man standing on the beach at Norfolk coast

‘Norwich is a great place to do science, a great place to live and it’s got a great football team!’ says Professor Matt Hutchings - Credit: Matt Hutchings

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here

What does your role as group leader involve? 

I lead a research group primarily working on bacteria called Streptomyces. They live in soil and make molecules called ‘specialised metabolites’ that can kill bacteria, fungi, insects, animals and plants. They are incredibly useful to humans because we can use them as antibiotics, herbicides and anti-cancer compounds. In fact, more than half of all clinically used antibiotics are made by Streptomyces bacteria. 

Why is your work important? 

During the last century, antibiotics increased average life expectancy by 23 years. However, most of the antibiotics in clinical use today were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s. During the last 80 years the bacteria that infect us have started to become resistant to those antibiotics. Our research into superbugs earned me an appearance in the BBC 4 documentary Michael Mosely vs The Superbugs

Antimicrobial resistance is one of the great challenges facing humanity. If we don’t discover new antibiotics in the next few decades, we will have nothing to treat infectious diseases, which is a really frightening outlook. On the positive side, we know there is a lot of potential out there to discover new antibiotics – we just have to get out there and do the hard work. 

What is the aim of your research? 

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One aspect of my work is to identify strains of bacteria that make new antibiotics and find new leads for the development of clinical medicines. We are currently studying Streptomyces formicae – a strain of bacteria we discovered in an ant nest in a thorny acacia tree in Kenya. A species of ant called Tetraponera penzigi protect the trees from large herbivores like elephants and giraffes. The ants live and grow fungus in hollow swellings in the trees and most likely use these antibiotic-producing bacteria to protect themselves and their fungus against disease.  

Here we found a new species of Streptomyces that makes amazing molecules called formicamycins that can kill superbugs like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). These superbugs never become resistant to formicamycins under lab conditions and they are not toxic to human cells, so they are very promising antibiotics.  

Two people at a music festival in a crowd

Matt and his wife Cerian at Green Man Festival in 2018 - Credit: Cerian Hutchings

How did you end up working here in Norwich? 

I left school with two A Levels and got a job as a research assistant in the chemical pathology lab at St Helier Hospital in London. One of the consultants encouraged me to continue my education so I did my undergraduate degree at University of Portsmouth then moved to the University of Southampton for a PhD in the biochemistry department. 

I did my post-doctoral work with Stephen Spiro at UEA, which is what brought me to Norwich in 1998. I’d not been to Norwich before and everyone told me I would never leave because nobody leaves Norwich after moving here. I’m still here 22 years later, so it must be true. 

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park

The research facilities here are astounding and it is a highly collaborative and supportive place to work. We have the highest concentration of microbiology researchers in Europe on the Park. There is a lot of expertise and I collaborate with scientists at UEA, the Quadram Institute and The Sainsbury Laboratory. 

Norwich is a hidden gem – and yet we have one of the best places to do scientific research in the world, which is incredible really. JIC is the world centre of Streptomyces research and is where Sir David Hopwood pioneered the study of these bacteria 53 years ago. I never left because it’s a great place to do science, a great place to live and it’s got a great football team! 

What do you get up to when you are not working? 

I have two boys who are football crazy. We’re Norwich City season ticket holders and used to enjoy going to matches before lockdown, so now we watch them on iFollow! If I’m not watching football with my boys, I’m watching my boys playing football. My youngest plays for Stoke Holy Cross Under 9s and my eldest plays for Lakeford Rangers Under 12s.  

I used play drums in a band called Bearsuit – which some readers will remember. We’re also renovating our house in Eaton, which keeps me busy during lockdown. 

Professor Matt Hutchings is a group leader at the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHutchings10

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