Super germs and flesh-eating bacteria do not need a press agent. They are the stuff of  blockbuster movies and best-selling books. Lantibiotics, on the other hand, are a kind of antibiotic that are not about doom and gloom, and therefore are probably not getting their share of attention.

Certain antibiotics have a role in the food industry now as shelf-life extenders in some processed foods.

But a month ago, the University of Minnesota put out a press release saying its researchers discovered and received a patent for a naturally occurring antibiotic with the ability to kill harmful bacteria in food. It is a peptide produced by harmless bacteria.

One day soon, this harmless bacteria could be added to meat and poultry and other food to kill harmful bacteria from bacteria-resistant Salmonella to E coli O157:H7 and Listeria.

The significance of the U of M discovery is that it is the first natural food preservative found to kill gram-negative bacteria — like the dangerous O157:H7.

“It’s aimed at protecting foods from a broad range of bugs that cause disease,” said Dan O’Sullivan, a professor of food science and nutrition in U of M’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “Of the natural preservatives, it has a broader umbrella of bugs that it can protect against.” 

Sullivan is credited with discovering the peptide by accident while researching the genome of bacteria. With the collaboration of U of M graduate student Ju-Hoon Lee, Sullivan then put his focus on the lantibiotic.

Unlike some other intervention strategies, antibiotics hold out the promise of preventing harmful bacteria in food, not just reducing their numbers.

The U of M researchers say the lantibiotic could be used to prevent harmful bacteria in meats, processed cheeses, egg and dairy products, canned foods, seafood, salad dressing, fermented beverages and many other foods. 

In addition to food safety benefits, lantibiotics are easy to digest, nontoxic, do not induce allergies, and it is difficult for dangerous bacteria to develop resistance against them.

Lantibiotic research is progressing now because of the past decade’s advances in genomic technologies, researchers say.

“Without a genomic analysis of the organism, we would not have found this antibiotic,” Sullivan told  meatingplace, the industry news site.  “This has the potential to be a big deal, but what’s holding it back is an efficient production system.”

“The problem is understanding how the bug works,” he said. “Once we understand what the bug does, we can develop conditions to produce it under fermentation conditions.”

Sullivan says if the  funding is made available, the research to get it to “commercial evaluation” could take about three years.

The U of M’s Office for Technology Commercialization is currently seeking a licensee for the technology.