Keanu’s latest role? Fungus-killing bacterial compound
Upon their discovery that certain bacterial compounds kill fungus, scientists at a German research institute were reminded of lethal action of a Hollywood proportion: specifically, Keanu Reeves in his starring role in the thriller franchise “John Wick.” The compounds, which the researchers called “keanumycins,” withered away both fungi harmful to plants and humans with deadly precision. “Keanu Reeves plays many iconic roles in which he is extremely efficient in ‘inactivating’ his enemies. The keanumycins do the same with fungi,” said Dr. Pierre Stallforth, one of the researchers and a professor of paleobiotechnology at Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology in Jena, Germany.
A publicist for Reeves did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The entertainment company Lionsgate, the distributor of the “John Wick” films, held a question-and-answer forum on Reddit with Reeves over the weekend, in which he described his reaction to the discovery named after him.
“They should’ve called it John Wick,” he said. “But that’s pretty cool … and surreal for me. But thanks, scientist people! Good luck, and thank you for helping us.” The bacterial compounds are effective against both plant fungal diseases and fungi that plague humans, according to findings published in The Journal of the American Chemical Society in January. “The keanumycins create holes in the surface of the pathogen and it ‘bleeds’ to death,” said the study’s lead author, Sebastian Gotze, a postdoctorate in paleobiotechnology at the Leibniz Institute.
“Like Keanu Reeves in his many roles as a proficient killer, the newly discovered molecules can also very efficiently, at low concentrations, kill different human fungal pathogens, by riddling them with holes,” he said. The authors cooked up a broth of bacteria that produce keanumycin and applied it to a hydrangea plant covered with the fungus Botrytis cinerea, a common blight among greenhouse crops like tomatoes and strawberries.
They found that the bacteria filled the fungus with holes, freeing the hydrangea of plague and proving that keanumycins work effectively against a plant pest that causes gray mold rot and leads to substantial harvest losses every year.
The compounds also work against Candida albicans, a naturally occurring fungus in the human body whose overproduction can cause infection.
A natural and biodegradable agent like the keanumycins could be an important alternative to pesticides and antibiotics amid a “crisis of anti-infectives,” according to Dr. Gotze, or drugs that prevent or treat infections. Many fungi are now resistant to drugs and substances that have been used to kill them in the past. “Resistance against most drugs which are used to treat infectious diseases is spreading throughout the world,” Dr. Gotze said. “If fungal phytopathogens are resistant to fungicides, your crop production goes down, which can lead to famine in extreme cases,” he added.
The researchers’ findings suggest a microbial evolution to fight against predatory pathogens, said Dr. Matthew Nelsen, a research scientist at the Field Museum in Chicago who was not involved in the study. “Previous efforts have sought to exploit such natural products for human use to combat animal and plant pathogens. However, over time, many pathogenic organisms — including fungi — have evolved resistance to the chemicals we use to battle them,” Dr. Nelsen said. “Consequently, we need to find a new way to outsmart or one-up them.”
Schmall is a correspondent for NYT©2023
The New York Times
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