NOBODY SCOURS CENTRAL Park looking for drugs quite the way Sean Brady does. On a sweltering Thursday, he hops out of a yellow cab, crosses Fifth Avenue, and scurries up a dirt path. Around us, the penetrating churn of a helicopter and the honk of car horns filter through the trees. Brady, a fast-talking chemist in his late 40s who sports a graying buzz cut and rimless glasses, has a wry, self-deprecating humor that belies the single-minded determination of his quest. He walks along restlessly. Near the lake, we head up a rock slope and into a secluded area. Brady bends over and picks up a pinch of dusty soil. “Out of that bit of soil,” he says, “you can get enough to do DNA analysis.” He holds it in his fingertips momentarily, and then tosses it. Bits of glassy silica glisten in the sunlight.
Brady is creating drugs from dirt. He’s certain that the world’s topsoils contain incredible, practically inexhaustible reservoirs of undiscovered antibiotics, the chemical weapons bacteria use to fend off other microorganisms. He’s not alone in this thinking, but the problem is that the vast majority of bacteria cannot be grown in the lab—a necessary step in cultivating antibiotics.
Brady has found a way around this roadblock, which opens the door to all those untapped bacteria that live in dirt. By cloning DNA out of a kind of bacteria-laden mud soup, and reinstalling these foreign gene sequences into microorganisms that can be grown in the lab, he’s devised a method for discovering antibiotics that could soon treat infectious diseases and fight drug-resistant superbugs. In early 2016, Brady launched a company called Lodo Therapeutics (lodo means mud in Spanish and Portuguese) to scale up production and ultimately help humanity outrun infectious diseases nipping at our heels. Some colleagues call his approach “a walk in the park.” Indeed, his lab recently dispatched two groups of student volunteers to collect bags full of dirt at 275 locations around New York City.