The process involves harrowing road trips and a lot of really disgusting Q-tips.

Photo by Candace Coker

Photo by Candace Coker

The medicine that’ll be keeping us alive tomorrow—everything from the antibiotics for serious infections to the ibuprofen for minor headaches—might not be discovered in a lab. They might end up being discovered on the side of an Oklahoma highway, dug out of the bunghole of a dead raccoon.

At least that’s the hope of biochemist Robert Cichewicz and his colleague, microbiologist Bradley Stevenson, both professors at the University of Oklahoma and both determined to find out if roadkill contains the medical secrets that could launch a medical revolution.

For the last three years, they’ve driven up and down the Oklahoma state highway in search of dead deer, skunks, opossums, squirrels, armadillos, raccoons, and anything else (non-human) that met its demise under a tire or against a bumper. If it’s got an intact orifice—an actual one, not an orifice created by blunt force trauma—they’ll swab it for the bacteria that keeps pathogens away.

What does animal bacteria have to do with finding new medicines? “If you look at a human solely from a cellular perspective, we’re just a pile of microbes and a human skeleton,” Cichewicz says. “Those microbes are big players in our ability to resist disease. Basically it’s like having little pharmaceutical companies inside of you, on your skin, in your nose, in your ears.”

All mammals have protective microbes, but they’re not all doing the same things in the same ways. “An opossum might have something living in its nose that is a very potent antibiotic that keeps it from getting the sniffles,” Cichewicz says. “We could potentially harvest that bacteria, the natural product that it makes, and turn it into a product for human health.”

That’s the goal anyway. But the journey to get there involves some harrowing road trips and a lot of really disgusting Q-tips. I called Cichewicz and Stevenson to discuss the dirty, dirty, dirty, seriously dirty world of roadkill microbe-collecting.

How’d you get the inspiration for this? I imagine the two of you driving down a highway and you see a dead armadillo by the road, and one of you says, “Hey, we should totally pull over, get some cotton swabs and see what’s in that armadillo’s butt?”

ROBERT CICHEWICZ: Yeah, I think that’s pretty fair description of what happened. [Laughs]

BRADLEY STEVENSON: As a microbiologist, I think that about anything I see. I wonder, “What kind of microbial community is in there?” It’s not just roadkill. That’s a pretty common perspective for me.

RC: We were both interested at looking at natural products from the human biome. We’ve all got our own microbial consortia living within us. We were working on some compounds that were coming from the oral cavity, and having some good luck with it. But then we noticed, oh, there are other people getting interested in this same issue, and I just don’t like navigating in dense scientific space.

Too much competition?
RC: Yeah. I like being off on our own. So, mammals seemed like a great opportunity. But then you get into issues of, well, how do you get access? Not being one who likes paperwork and the problems that come with live animal studies, that was unappealing to me.

So then you thought, hey, there are a bunch of dead ones on the side of the road that nobody seems all that concerned about?
RC: That’s right. Basically you’re dealing with a carcass, and you can circumnavigate all those ethical and administrative issues that come with studying live animals, and you can just get down to business.

But there is at least some red tape, right? I’ve heard that in Oklahoma, dead animals on public roads are considered state property.
RC: That’s true. You have to get a state scientific collector’s permit in order to manipulate the animals roadside.

Is this actually being enforced? Are there police out there cruising the highways to make sure people aren’t stuffing dead deer carcasses in their trunks?
RC: I think you’ll find that to be true in most states, especially with deer. Technically speaking, when you pick up roadkill, and if you’re doing it for culinary purposes, you are breaking the law.

Culinary purposes? People are eating roadkill?
RC: Oh sure. In my family, we did it all the time when I was a kid. It was always exciting. I remember some days my dad would come home from work and he’d say to me, “Change clothes quick, there’s a deer on the corner of such and such. Let’s go pick it up.” We’d go get it, because right there was sixty to eighty pounds of free meat.

How do you know when a dead animal is a good candidate for sampling? You can’t be pulling over for every carcass you see, right? Can you tell when you’re driving past at sixty miles an hour, “Nope, that one’s too mangled?”
RC: The more we’ve done this, the more astute we’ve become, where you can just drive past and make a judgment based on just the appearance, the amount of blood, the bloat or lack thereof. You can make a quick guess as to how long it’s been sitting by the road, and what kind of shape it’s in. Sometimes you have to pull over anyway and examine it more thoroughly, to see if you can identify a point of entry to get a swab into.

A point of entry? Like an orifice?
RC: Yeah. [Laughs.] Well, you need to know what parts you’re dealing with. If an animal was totally mangled beyond recognition, I don’t know what you’d sample. We would look for at least one recognizable, accessible port that hadn’t been compromised. Not to be gruesome, but with some of these car hits, you’re going to have significant bleeding out of the diverticular orifice, so we would want to stay away from that, because now you’re getting contamination of multiple tissues into one site.

Is it just the two of you doing all this collecting, or do you have a team?
BS: There’s a team. At this point, they’re better at it than we are. The study we did last year, that came out in November in the Journal of Natural Products, it got a lot of attention, and now we’re working with multiple graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and numerous undergraduate researchers as well. An activity like that does select for those that can handle it and are better at it. We ended up having a pretty well-seasoned group attacking this problem on the street level.

What was your personal worst moment out in the field?
RC: I’ve had a couple. The one that still gives me goosebumps was this deer. It was early spring, and this thing looked fairly intact. So I got down and started to swab it, and it looked like it was moving, but I knew that couldn’t be real. Then all of a sudden I realized, it’s a preponderance of ticks all over its body.

Holy crap.
RC: I stopped and started swatting at my body, “Oh god, they’re all over me!” I kept looking, but I didn’t have anything. Just thinking about it still gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Has the goal always been discovering or creating new medicines? Or is it enough just to see how these animal microbiomes work?
RC: We want to make drugs! The legal kind, of course. Our motivation here has always come down to helping humans. You’re obviously aware of the huge antibiotic resistance problem. Humankind is facing a very, very dark moment, in that we’ve conquered so many infectious diseases but now we’re losing that fight. Where are we getting these new antibiotics from?

Skunk anuses, obviously.
RC: [Laughs] Well, that sounds nuts, but there are millions of microbiomes that are definitely worth exploring. Brad and I, we both see a day when you’ll be able to manage human health by microbiome manipulation. Maybe there’s a microbe that makes a molecule that you could then colonize the human gut, the human ear, the human nose or so forth. As a society, we’re moving towards engineering the human microbiome. Not just saying, “Here’s a probiotic, take that and hopefully it catches hold in your gut.” We’re getting closer already with fecal transplants. Basically you’re taking poop from one person and putting it into another. I say that we could get a lot more thoughtful about that process.

More thoughtful how?
RC: What if we could take, for example, biosynthetic genes that come out of a skunk’s butt, and put these into a microbe that would have some sort of beneficial effect when they enter the human GI tract? Wouldn’t that be remarkable?

[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Vice.]