New antibiotics from ancient dental calculus: Pierre Stallforth appointed to professorship

| by Christine Vogler

Pierre Stallforth is new Professor of Biooganic Chemistry and Paläobiotechnology at FSU Jena. (Source: Leibniz-HKI)

Pierre Stallforth - Head of the Department of Palaeobiotechnology at Leibniz-HKI - received the certificate of appointment and was thus appointed to a professorship at Friedrich Schiller University (FSU) Jena by President Walter Rosenthal. The newly minted Professor of Bioorganic Chemistry and Palaeobiotechnology is a member of the Faculty of Chemical and Earth Sciences.

Pierre Stallforth studied chemistry at Oxford University and received his doctorate at the renowned ETH Zurich. He then worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School near Boston before moving to Leibniz-HKI in 2013 to lead a junior research group.

Generous Funding from the Werner Siemens Foundation enables Stallforth to establish a completely new field of research: In prehistoric samples, he and his team are looking for genetic information for natural substances that can no longer be found in organisms living today. His goal is to thus introduce the temporal dimension into natural product research and, above all, find new antibiotics.

"Antibiotics have saved millions of lives since the discovery in 1928 of the first antibiotic that was later used clinically. But in the meantime, there is resistance to many of the common drugs. We urgently need new classes of active compounds for the development of antibiotics," says the scientist.

He is supported by archaeologist Christina Warinner, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and associate professor at Harvard University near Boston as well as professor at FSU Jena. The idea behind the project: Today's bacteria are probably no longer equipped against the defensive compounds produced by ancient bacteria. Fossil dental calculus serves as the source for the prehistoric microorganisms; Christina Warinner – her research group is associated to the Leibniz-HKI - has a whole collection of them.

The DNA of these bacteria contains the building instructions for numerous natural products, possibly including antibiotics. However, it is only available in the form of scattered fragments that first have to be put together correctly and sometimes even need to be complemented with the help of bioinformatics. Stallforth's team will further develop existing technologies to access this information. Subsequently, by means of genetic engineering methods, laboratory bacteria will be induced to produce the old natural products, which will then be tested for their antibiotic effect.

As a professor, Pierre Stallforth will also take on teaching duties at Friedrich Schiller University Jena in the future. With his field of research at the interface between chemistry and biology, he will primarily introduce students to interdisciplinary work in research teams. He is already well connected with his own projects in the Collaborative Research Centre ChemBioSys and the Jena Cluster of Excellence Balance of the Microverse. After his move to the newly established Biotech Center of the Leibniz-HKI, planned for spring 2022, he and his team will benefit from the best conditions for experimental research.


Pierre Stallforth