A family of microbes known as Archaea might hold potential as a new type of antibacterial drug. These bugs are known as “life’s extremists” due to their remarkable ability to live in extreme temperatures, from boiling hydrothermal pools and deep sea vents, where no other organisms can survive.

“It is the first discovery of a functional antibacterial gene in Archaea,” Seth Bordenstein, associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University and an author of the study, said in the press release. “You can’t overstate the significance of the antibiotic resistance problem that humanity is facing. This discovery should help energize the pursuit for new antibiotics in this underexplored group of life.” Indeed, as antibiotic use has increased — and has become exposed in meat and other foods we consume — more and more antibiotic-resistant bacteria are developing.

The researchers out of Vanderbilt University analyzed a gene that produces an enzyme found in tears, saliva, milk, and mucus, known as a lysozyme. The lysozyme in the Archaea gene contains “broad-spectrum antibacterial action,” the study found. “We found that this Archaea lysozyme kills certain species of firmicutes bacteria, a large group of bacteria that contains the classic drug resistant bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax, and the gut infection Clostridium difficule,” Bordenstein said in the press release.

Before this study, scientists rarely gave a second thought to Archaea. In short, they were just weird, isolated little bugs that did their own thing inside deep sea vents, rarely interacting with other life forms and not posing a threat to humans. But recently researchers have discovered that Archaea aren’t just limited to extreme environments; they live in milder ones, and interact with more organisms than previously thought, too. “The fact that Archaea are interacting with other forms of life a lot more than we thought means that they are competing for resources,” Jason Metcalf, an author of the study who is pursuing an MD/PhD at Vanderbilt, said in the press release. “And, if they are competing for resources, then they are creating chemicals to attack and defend against other organisms: compounds that could be effective against bacteria resistant to our current antibiotics.”

The anti-bacterial gene in question, GH25 muramidase, was originally found in a bacteriophage virus that attacks Wolbachia, a bacterial parasite. Later, researchers found the gene in insects, as well as an ancient line of plants and fungi. But the most fascinating place for the gene to be found was in the Archaea family. “Why in the world would [Archaea] need such an enzyme?” Metcalf wondered. “These Archaea live in close proximity, in biofilms, to extremophile bacteria and need to compete for resources. I have wondered, ‘How do Archaea do it?’ Through this paper, we show that the smart archaeal ‘bugs’ do so by stealing genes from their bacterial ‘mates’ and competitors. This points to Archaea being good, as yet relatively untapped targets for exploring new anti-bacterial drugs.”