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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Focus on: Bo Li

In Carolina’s chemistry department, Assistant Professor Bo Li studies the chemistry and biology of natural products to address major challenges in infectious disease and discover new antibiotics. Her lab’s novel approaches find ways to develop natural products that combat antibiotic resistance. Li explains that antibiotic overuse has mostly caused the worldwide problem of bacterial antibiotic resistance. New antibiotics may help patients who are at risk and who become infected by drug-resistant bacteria.











We study a number of pathogenic bacteria that cause infectious diseases, meaning diseases that spread, especially ones that are high on the World Health Organization’s priority list. One is MRSA that we hear a lot about in the media. These bacteria can cause staph infections that are difficult to treat because they are resistant to multiple antibiotics.


Li’s lab begins with fundamental science, identifying a molecule with a strong ability to inhibit a disease-causing pathogen. As chemists, they optimize the molecule to enhance its properties and function better in humans before collaborating with scientists in the School of Medicine to test the molecule.


The next step, perhaps, is going to clinical trials for some of the more promising leads that we discover through initial studies. Ultimately, we would work with a company that has established interests in a given disease or, in some cases, we would form our own companies, which Carolina encourages. The timeline typically takes 10 years or longer to bring a new drug to market.


Li says that many antibiotics are discovered in the environment around us. Penicillin, for example, was discovered in mold growing on fruit. Many are found in common household microorganisms.


If we go to our backyard and scoop up some dirt, isolate some bacteria, they probably make some of the antibiotics that we know about. It’s actually pretty common for us to find antibiotics in the natural world. Every bacteria is trying to survive and adapt, so they make these organic molecules or antibiotics that so they can compete with one another or signal to one another.


One of Li’s strongest collaborations is with Jeff Dangl, the John N. Couch Professor of Biology, whose lab studies infectious diseases on crops. They use genomic information to find bacteria that secrete a new class of molecules.


These molecules weaken plant immune response and promote the bacteria’s ability to infect plants. We’re using the same workflow to do more research like this in pathogens that infect humans or other plants.


Every day, Carolina faculty members engage in groundbreaking research, innovative teaching and public service that impacts in our community and the state, nation and the world.

Tune in to Focus Carolina during morning, noon and evening drive times and on the weekends to hear their stories and find out what ignites their passion for their work. You can listen to WCHL at 97.9 FM or 1360 AM. The interviews will also be available anytime online at under the Focus Carolina tab.







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