Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have developed a new procedure to create antimicrobials that can be used as alternatives to antibiotics to kill pathogens.

Molecular biologist David Donovan at the ARS Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC) in Beltsville, MD, developed the patented technology for the new form of antimicrobials that target disease-causing pathogens. Donovan works in the center’s Animal Biosciences and Biotechnology Laboratory.

Viruses that infect bacteria are called bacteriophages and produce enzymes that can be used to kill pathogens. These novel enzymes have proven effective in killing disease organisms such as streptococci and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA.

Donovan collaborated with industry, university and federal scientists to demonstrate that these particular enzymes have molecular domains that can be isolated and will act independently of their protein surroundings. The bacteriophages kill bacteria by eating or chewing up the wall of cells.

The ARS researcher says the enzymes can be manipulated to create an antimicrobial that targets and kills only specific pathogens. This process greatly reduces the likelihood that non-targeted bacteria will develop resistance.

Read more about this effort in the May/June 2012 issue of Agricultural Research magazine at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/ar/.