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Antibiotics in Nature: Beyond Biological Warfare

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Science  26 Jun 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5935, pp. 1637-1639
DOI: 10.1126/science.324_1637

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Antibiotics are widely regarded simply as microbe-killers, both in medicine and in nature, where they are produced by soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria. But there's scant evidence that bacteria or fungi deploy antibiotics to kill or ward off other microbes. What researchers know about antibiotic-producing microbes comes mainly from studying them in high numbers as pure cultures in the lab—artificial conditions compared with the numbers and diversity found in soil. And in the past 15 years, some researchers have become convinced that natural antibiotics are doing other things in the complex world of microbial communities. These molecules, they assert, may be less weapons for competition or combat than tools of communication, or even essential cogs in their producers' own metabolism.