Stalking Cave Bacteria to Make Secret Weapons Against Superbugs

Life-Saving Anitbiotics Could Be Hidden in Caves

When you think of explorers scuttling through caves in hot pursuit of ancient treasure, it's probably Indiana Jones or Lara Croft dodging blow darts and leaping over booby traps. It's probably not Dr. Naowarat Cheeptham. But the ancient treasures she's after are even more valuable: bacteria that could save your life.

One of the great moments in medical history was the discovery of penicillin nearly 90 years ago. Alexander Fleming’s famous serendipity opened the era of antibiotics, preventing millions of deaths. Unfortunately, our use of antibiotics has contributed to the rise of fearsome new strains—“superbugs”—that are resistant to many treatments.

Descending into the depths, Cheeptham explores networks of caves to find strains of benign bacteria that can be used to grow new antibiotics. With their almost entirely isolated ecosystems, caves are one of the last places on the planet in which microorganisms are still waiting to be discovered. There, in the dark, she is helping fight one of the gravest and fastest-growing threats to the complex creatures who dwell up above.