After reading Kevin C.'s question in the comments on my last antibiotic post, I decided to look into this question a bit further.
As far as I can tell, most of the commercially producted antibiotics are made by bacteria, fungi, and a bit chemistry (more on that in a moment). It appears, however, that compounds with antimicrobial properties are made by just about everything. Just to make things complicated, these molecules are sometimes called "antibiotics" in the literature and sometimes they're not.
Many of the molecules with antimicrobial activity are short peptides- chains of amino acids between 10 and 50 residues long (1, 2). Others are lipids (3).
Plants make a large, diverse, family of compounds called "oxylipins" that are derived from polyunsaturated fatty acids. Researchers became interested in these compounds after learning that they were produced in response to plant pathogens. The idea was that they might be part of a plant immune response. Prost, et. al. tested 43 different oxylipins in the article cited below (3) and found that most of them were able to hinder growth of some kinds of pathogens. How these compounds work isn't yet known, but they seem to have some specificity. Some oxylipins were better at inhibiting fungi. Some were better at inhibiting the growth of bacterial pathogens, like Pseudomonas syringae.
The antimicrobial peptides are a much better characterized group of compounds. They have diverse structures and sequences. Some act against bacteria and some against fungi. And they are made by just about everything including amphibians, mammals, plants, and insects. Even Drosophila (fruit flies) make an antifungal peptide called drosomycin. Magainin, an antimicrobial peptide from frog skin, is shown in the image.
I remember first learning about these peptides a long time ago. One day, one of my immunology students came into class with his tongue pierced. I was aghast and well, really worried about the potential for infection. Sure, students at my community college were well known to pierce every part of their bodies that could be pierced, but this was someone that I knew. And you've probably heard the old line about a dog's mouth being cleaner than a human's. I didn't really believe that that was true, but to me, putting a hole in your tongue is just plain unhygienic. This student surprised me though, he brought in an article about antimicrobial peptides in cow tongues and used that for his oral presentation. He was the first person to tell me that antimicrobial peptides were made in the tongue.
Commercial development of antimicrobial peptides
Now, according to the Nature Biotechnology article (2), four antimicrobial peptides have been tested in phase 3 clinical trials. Only two of them were effective: Pexiganan, for treating diabetic foot ulcers, and Omiganan for preventing catheter-associated infections. Neither one has been approved by the FDA, but many other antimicrobial peptides are in the pipeline).
How quickly will bacteria become resistant?
One intriguing aspect of these compounds, is the question of resistance. The bacteria that make antibiotics also possess genes that make them resistant to antibiotics. Those genes can be shared with other bacteria. These antimicrobial peptides, however, are not accompanied by bacterial antibiotic resistance genes, so it might take more time for bacterial populations to develop resistance to these peptides.
Time will tell.
1. Micheal Zasloff. 2002. "Antimicrobial peptides of multicellular organisms." Nature 415:389-395.
2. Robert E W Hancock & Hans-Georg Sahl. 2006. "Antimicrobial and host-defense peptides as new anti-infective therapeutic strategies" Nature Biotechnology - 24:1551 - 1557.
3. Prost, I., et.al. 2005. "Evaluation of the Antimicrobial Activities of Plant Oxylipins Supports Their Involvement in Defense against Pathogens."
Plant Physiol. 139(4): 1902-1913.
Don't forget soap.
Does soap work by killing bacteria or by removing it from the skin? I've heard all kinds of stories about Pseudomonas growing in liquid soap.
Time to do more research, I guess.
Also - even though we used to make soap from animal fat - I don't know if this is a common method anymore. I think some soaps are made through synthetic chemistry.
Antibiotics are defined, as much as we can define them, as natural compounds that kill bacteria.
Soap dissolves biological membranes because it is ampipathic and breaks up the lipid bilayers into micelles allowing them to dissolve in water.
I figured your question was whether there is a common anti-microbial that was not made by bacteria or fungi. I say soap. Humans make it (although by memes rather than genes), it's the most commonly used antimicrobial in the world, as or more revolutionary than penicillin (once we figured out septic theory), and also very difficult for bacteria to become resistant to since it is basically incompatible with biological membranes.
If the definition requires the be "natural" then I don't know if we should include it. It is natural in that it is made from readily available biological compounds, namely fat from animals. But not in that it is a product of a biosynthetic pathway.
Oh yes, antibiotics are definitely natural products that are made by biosynthetic pathways. They're also known as secondary metabolites since they're not essential for growth. See the primer and this post. When I first learned about them, though, and when I taught Microbiology, it was thought that they were only made by bacteria and some fungi.
I think it was about ten years ago, that we learned that other organisms, like moths and frogs, made anti-microbial compounds, too. It's a little confusing because sometimes the authors of papers on these substances call them "antibiotics," sometimes they don't.
Whether the part of the definition will always include "being made by bacteria or fungi," I don't know, but antibiotics will always be considered "natural products."
Hello, you mention that antibiotics are made from fungi. But how do they make them? I'm quite new on this site so you might of already answered it in which case I apologize.
Antibiotics, like any natural product, are made by proteins (enzymes) that assemble them from starting materials inside of a cell.
We call the assembly lines "biosynthetic pathways." Each protein has a job in the assembly line and carries out a different kind of chemical reaction. At the end of the assembly line, cells also have a shipping department that sends the antibiotics out of the cell and into the surrounding environment.