Meet antivitamins. They may replace your antibiotics one day

German researchers have just solved the mystery of how these substances work.

hands holding pills
  • As pathogens' resistance grows, scientists are searching for a class of drugs that could replace antibiotics.
  • Antivitamins that switch off vitamins in bacteria are being investigated.
  • Scientists have been struggling to understand how naturally occurring antivitamins do what they do.


Though many of us have never heard of antivitamins, scientists have known about them since Sir Edward Mellanby identified the first one — though he called it a "toxamin" — in the late 1930s. These substances do what their name implies: They stop vitamins from functioning. As we near the end of the antibiotic era due to the rapid pace at which bacteria are developing resistance to the wonder drugs, researchers are taking a closer look at antivitamins as the basis of a new class of drugs that may potentially replace antibiotics for treating bacterial infections.

The first step, however, is figuring out how antivitamins do what they do. For example, the antivitamin that nullifies Vitamin B1 differs from the vitamin by just one single atom, and a seemingly unimportant one at that. It doesn't seem as if that should be enough, but it is, and researchers at the University of Göttingen in Germany have just shared research documenting their discovery of what's going on. Their report, "Structural basis for antibiotic action of the B1 antivitamin 2′-methoxy-thiamine," is published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

Shutting down the dance of the proteins

Vitamin B1

Image source: Ekaterina_Minaeva/Shutterstock

The study was led by Dr. Kai Tittmann's group from the Göttingen Center for Molecular Biosciences at the University of Göttingen in collaboration with Bert De Groot's Computational Biomolecular Dynamics Group from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry Göttingen, and with Tadhg Begley's group from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

The B1 antivitamin is naturally occurring, and is produced by bacteria as a means of killing off competing bacteria. Its critical atom appears in an apparently unimportant location, deepening the mystery.

To see how that single atom was doing such an effective job, the researchers used high-resolution protein crystallography. This allowed them to observe the interaction between the B1 antivitamin and B1 on an atomic level.

What they saw was that the antivitamin completely interrupted the "dance of protons" that's seen in functioning proteins. Tittmann says, "Just one extra atom in the antivitamin acts like a grain of sand in a complex gear system by blocking its finely tuned mechanics." (Tittmann's group was the first to document this "dance" in 2019.)

Antivitamins don’t bother humans

One particularly significant finding of the new research is that, although the B1 antivitamin prevents B1 from functioning in bacteria, it doesn't interfere with the vitamin for humans. This offers hope that antivitamins can be developed that target and neutralize pathogens without doing harm to patients.

De Groot's team created computer simulations to learn why humans are unaffected by the errant atom, and found that, "The human proteins either do not bind to the antivitamin at all or in such a way that they are not 'poisoned.'"

The possibility that antivitamins may at some point be ready to step in and replace failing antibiotics is not totally unexpected. Antivitamins were actually used in the development of antibiotic and antiproliferative drugs such as prontosil and aminopterin. And there are already some antivitamin medicines in use, notably antagonists for vitamins B12, B9, and K.


A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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