Hundreds of polymers that could kill drug-resistant superbugs in novel ways can be produced and tested using light. The new method may help identify antimicrobials for a range of applications from personal care to coatings.

The method synthesizes large libraries of polymers in such a way to speed up their screening for antimicrobial activity without the need to use sealed vials. By using multiple building blocks in their polymers, new antimicrobials were identified — some of which appear to inhibit bacteria growth. The method allows screening of hundreds of different structures, enabling researchers to “go fishing” for new properties, which in this case was antibiotic activity.

Antimicrobials are essential not just in the treatment of internal disease and infections, but also in personal care products such as contact lenses or shampoo, foods, or as topical creams. Traditional anti-microbials (such as penicillin) work by inhibiting key cellular processes. The new method focuses on host-defense peptides — broad-spectrum antimicrobials that function by breaking apart the membrane of bacteria.

The polymers were prepared in such a way that at the end of the reaction, robots are used to mix polymers directly with bacteria. The new method enables hundreds of polymers to be synthesized and tested for the ability to kill superbugs. The findings could speed up the discovery of new antimicrobials not just for medical uses, but for industrial applications as well.

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