Phosphonates are an abundant and diverse class of natural signaling molecules that have already proved useful to medicine and agriculture.
Of the 20 previously known natural-product phosphonates, two are used commercially - one as a clinical antibiotic and one as an herbicide - and another one is now in clinical trials to treat malaria.
Researchers used a technique called "genome mining" to search the genomes of 10,000 strains of actinomycete bacteria for pepM, a single gene that is required for most types of phosphonate biosynthesis.
The team identified 278 bacterial strains that had the pepM gene. The researchers then sequenced the full genomes of all 278 strains that had the gene. By examining the genes flanking pepM, the researchers could tell whether they were finding pathways to build new phosphonates or rediscovering old ones.
The 19 new structures are among 78 newly discovered groups of phosphonates produced from the 278 actinomycetes with the pepM gene. One of the 19, which the team named argolaphos, was found to be most potent against three types of bacteria that cause illness: Salmonella typhimurium, Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus.