And now for something completely different – a search for drugs in really odd places.
Travel with Andrea Stierle to the majestic Berkeley Pit in Butte Montana, ground zero of the largest EPA Superfund site in North America. Andrea will describe some of the research that she and husband/collaborator Donald Stierle have been involved in for the past twenty-three years. This research began when the Stierles were faculty in the Department of Chemistry at Montana Tech. They began their exploration of the secondary metabolites of fungi and bacteria surviving and thriving in an abandoned open-pit copper mine that has evolved into an acid mine waste lake. Berkeley Pit Lake now contains over 150 billion liters of metal sulfate rich, acidic “water” (pH 2.5) and sits at the headwaters of the Clark Fork and Columbia Rivers.
With its low pH and high metal content, it was considered too toxic to support life. In 1995, however, Andrea began to isolate fungi and bacteria from water and sediment samples provided by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology. Although conditions within the Pit Lake System were too toxic for “normal” aquatic biota, these same conditions provided an ideal environment for extremophiles which have proven to be a dynamic source of bioactive drug-like molecules waiting to be discovered. The Stierles moved their lab to the University of Montana in 2009 and are currently Research Professors in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. They have isolated compounds with activity against non-small cell lung cancer, ovarian cancer, melanoma, retinoblastoma and leukemia, as well as a new antibiotic with activity against MRSAs from this collection. These compounds could one day be as valuable as any metal ever mined from the richest hill on earth!
Biography: Andrea Stierle
Andrea Stierle is a natural products organic chemist who has spent the last 35 years working with her husband Don in the search for drug-like molecules from various source organisms. They moved to Butte as part of their honeymoon in 1980 and began working at Montana Tech. Andrea earned her doctorate in Organic Chemistry from Montana State University where she discovered the first host specific toxin against the weed pest spotted knapweed. As a Research Assistant Professor at Montana State University she discovered a fungus in the bark of the Pacific yew tree that produced paclitaxel in de novo fashion. This unique fungus – Taxomyces andreanae – was named after Andrea, its discoverer.
In 1995 they found microbes in the Berkeley Pit and began the search for new anticancer and anti-inflammatory agents – as well as antibiotics from this most unlikely of ecosystems. Now Research Professors at the University of Montana, Andrea and Don continue to explore the drug-like molecules produced by mine waste extremophiles. They have isolated compounds with activity against non-small cell lung cancer, ovarian cancer, melanoma, retinoblastoma and leukemia, as well as a new family of antibiotics with activity against MRSAs from this collection. In their spare time, Andrea and Don love to hike, ski, and float the beautiful rivers of Montana, Idaho, and desert Utah. She is an avid gardener in both Butte and Missoula, and sometimes, between the hours of 2 AM – 4 AM, she paints in oil and water color.