UBC Reports
October 31, 1996

UBC spin-off probes bugs for new drugs

by Charles Ker
Staff writer

Prof. Julian Davies ushered Canada's Minister of Industry into the invisible world of microbes earlier this month at the launch of his drug discovery company, TerraGen Diversity Inc.

"We are in the business of the invisible," Davies told the Hon. John Manley. "We are exploring the last great frontier left on the planet."

Davies, TerraGen president and head of UBC's Dept. of Microbiology and Immunology, gave Manley a tour of TerraGen's headquarters during the minister's first official visit to campus. Manley lauded TerraGen as typifying what his ministry is trying to do with Technology Partnerships Canada (TPC), a program focussed on fostering cutting-edge environmental technologies.

As the basis for all of Earth's ecosystems, Davies argues that the microbiological environment of bacteria and fungi remains virtually untapped as a source of natural products. This is due to the fact that scientists have so far been able to grow, or culture, less than one per cent of the world's microbes. Davies' research has come up with a novel method for getting at the remaining 99 per cent of unculturable bacteria.

Considering that there are about 5,000 species of microbes in any given handful of soil, the implications for scientific discovery seem unlimited, particularly in the area of pharmaceuticals.

Davies, a world leader in the field of antibiotics and their function, points out that most antibiotics are derived from compounds drawn from laboratory-grown microbes. As more and more strains of bacteria build resistance to multiple antibiotics, the need for new kinds of antibiotics is acute.

"Where are we going to get new compounds from?" asks Davies. "From the microbes or bugs we can't grow."

Davies says TerraGen research fits neatly into the federal government's plan of attack on pollution through improved water treatment systems, enhanced soil quality and the restoration of industrial waste water. Using direct cloning methods, TerraGen scientists have identified new industrial enzymes that may replace or supplement existing processes which use bacteria to degrade toxic substances. The professor says the full biochemical potential of microbes can be realized by isolating genes with useful enzyme characteristics encoded in microbial DNA.

Processes developed by TerraGen enable researchers to screen soil samples for unculturable microbes and extract their DNA. The DNA is then inserted into surrogate hosts which, in turn, express genes providing a range of enzymes with sensitivity to heat and cold, acid resistance and other intriguing traits.

TerraGen is one of seven UBC spin-off companies to set up shop in the Gerald McGavin Multi-Tenant Facility located at the corner of East Mall and Agronomy Road.

The building was constructed by Discovery Parks Inc. to provide economical lab and office space on campus.

UBC's University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO) was instrumental in TerraGen's start-up. As the link to UBC's research resources, the office negotiates all research contracts with industry and commercializes the university's research discoveries.

To date, the UILO has overseen the creation of 72 spin-off companies.