In 2001, Jo Handelsman spoke at New Horizons in Tempe, Arizona, where she told us about her pioneering work in extracting DNA of previously unknown organisms from soil—an area of study known as metagenomics. These were organisms that could not be cultured in the laboratory, and so the DNA revealed bits of countless organisms unkown to science. Because many antibiotics come from the soil, Handelsman has since been investigating sources of antibiotic resistance in the soil—that is, genes and proteins that allow bacteria to survive a hit with an antibiotic.
She’s found genes that make bacteria resistant to the most advanced antibiotics, hinting at a future in which they might begin to fail. She’s now interested in sources of antibiotic resistance that reside in the human gut, in organisms that cannot be cultured. And she’s extracting DNA from workers in apple orchards who spray streptomycin on their crops. Macintosh, anyone?