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Brian Bachmann, BIOSYNTHETIC CHEMIST, Nashville, Tennessee

Brian Bachmann

"It's amazing that we are now potentially going to be able to understand much of what it means to be human, through chemistry."

What He's Doing

Do drugs grow in caves? Brian Bachmann hopes so. He suspects that these secluded, nutrient-poor environments house microorganisms that constantly churn out unusual molecules to survive—some of which could become new drugs to treat human disease. To find those molecules, Bachmann crawls through caves below the Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia intersection, collecting small samples to study.

Bachmann searches his samples for undiscovered secondary metabolites: molecules that endow organisms with abilities beyond mere survival, such as communication and weaponry. Because these natural properties can be adapted for human use—to kill bacteria or reduce inflammation, for instance—secondary metabolites, or chemically modified versions of them, have the potential to become invaluable drugs. In fact, between half and three-quarters of all drugs on the market today are based on secondary metabolites, including caffeine, penicillin, codeine and steroids.

Vanderbilt University
Philosopher and businessman

LCD Soundsystem, Unkle, Antony and the Johnsons

Science fiction and biographies of early scientists

"Captain Bachmann" hat for Talk Like a Pirate Day

So far, Bachmann has embarked on quests for better malaria drugs, cheaper HIV drugs, new technologies for drug discovery and half a dozen promising drug candidates. It may sound like a motley collection of projects, but as Bachmann explains, "They're all unified by chemistry—the chemistry of how life makes molecules."

His Findings

In the 4 years he's been searching, Bachmann has plucked more than 20 secondary metabolites from cave organisms. About half of them are new to science.

Beyond the hunt for new secondary metabolites, Bachmann is trying to unlock the secrets of how organisms make these potential drugs in the first place. One way to do that is to analyze the genomes of promising microbes and try to predict what kinds of enzymes or compounds they make. That's how he decoded the genetic "blueprints" for making anthramycin, a kind of natural chemical equivalent to Valium that came from an organism found in a rotting compost heap.

He also uncovered the molecular structure of a compound called K-26, which was found in a soil sample next to a pond in Japan. K-26 contains a rare carbon-phosphorus bond and acts as a powerful ACE inhibitor to lower blood pressure. His work could provide insight into making a better blood pressure drug.

Read more about Bachmann in "Drugs from Deep Down" and "Bacterial 'Fight Clubs' and the Search for New Medicines".

Meet a Chemist


This page last reviewed on September 25, 2015