Is it true that some medicines come from the soil?

We’re not taking soil pills as medicine! But, it is true that some of our modern medicines have their roots in soils. As explored in a previous Soils Matter post ( ), soil is full of biodiversity. One gram of soil contains 100

Many medicines have their roots in soils.

Many medicines have their roots in soils.

million to 3 billion bacteria and 100,000 to 1 million fungi. The genus Streptomyces is the workhorse of microbes. It has been used for medicines that are antibiotics, antidepressants, anticancer, and antifungal!

  • Antimicrobials — During the course of their normal lives, microbes create “anti-microbial” chemicals. These substances kill off some of their neighbors, reducing competion for scarce food and water resources. Over 500 antibiotics have been cultured from soil microbes. You may be familiar with Streptomycin. This was the antibiotic that won Dr. Selman Waksman and his students the 1952 Nobel Prize.

    Bacteria do not grow around spots of antibiotics in a petri dish.

    Bacteria do not grow around spots of antibiotics in a petri dish.

  • Antidepressants – Mycobacterium vaccae may stimulate the production of serotonin in mice. And, many gardeners find they are happier after a session of working with their soil. Could the Mycobacterium in soil be boosting their mood?
  • Anticancer agents – Scientists are currently studying Clostridia sporogenes as an anticancer agent. This bacterium lives in low-oxygen environments…and it so happens that many tumors are low-oxygen! Perhaps Clostridia can kill the cancer cells without harming healthy oxygen-rich cells.

Only a small percentage of the microbes in soil have been identified. Researchers recently identified a new microbe with antibacterial properties. More exciting is that it inhibits drug-resistant strains of bacteria. The “Citizen Science” group is asking the public to send in soil samples from their yards to aid in the discovery of new microbes—and the potential for new medicines. Contact them at if you would like to participate!

-by Nick Comerford, University of Florida

To view SSSA’s Soils Support Health video, visit

More educational materials can be found on various SSSA websites:  (K-12 Lesson Plans and Activities)  (Just for kids!) (International Year of Soils, with a coloring book and monthly ideas for teachers and scientists!)

Subscribe to SSSA’s Soils Matter blog posts to get monthly answers to common soils-related questions:

Become a Friend of Soil Science (no charge) at:

Dig in further with a free trial membership at

Additional resources:

“When Soil Won the Nobel Prize”, a PPT presentation located at

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