Scientific Research Project Title

The Bright Side of Microbial Dark Matter: An Untapped Source of Novel Natural Products

Research Institution

Technical University of Denmark

The Bright Side of Microbial Dark Matter: An Untapped Source of Novel Natural Products


My field of research is at the interface between molecular microbial ecology and biotechnology


Phone: 4525 2518

Research leader

Mikkel Bentzon-Tilia

Assistant Professor, PhD, born 1985

Project title

The Bright Side of Microbial Dark Matter: An Untapped Source of Novel Natural Products

What is your project about?

Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is spreading at an alarming pace and it is one of the most serious threats to human health. Most antibiotics are based on natural compounds isolated from cultivable microorganisms and one of the main obstacles for the development of novel antibiotics is the fact that we can only cultivate less than 1 % of bacteria from the environment. The remaining >99 %, so-called ‘microbial dark matter’, represents a largely unexplored pool of bioactive compounds. The aim of this project is to isolate new antibiotics from this pool. Through the development of new cultivation-independent techniques for isolating bacteria, we can circumvent the cultivation barrier and acquire new antibiotics.

How did you become interested in your particular field of research?

My interest in science arose early on and I have always had an inherent curiosity, especially in relation to biology. Already upon entering secondary school, I was fascinated by the Galathea expeditions and by the ‘pressure loving’ bacteria they found in the deep seas. It was also the immense diversity and importance of microscopic organisms, which fascinated me most as a biology student. Later on, my interests and research activities gravitated towards the application of this diversity and in recent years, I have focused on the bioactive natural products produced by microorganisms in the environment. 

What are the scientific challenges and perspectives in your project?

Fully circumventing the cultivation of microorganisms in the acquisition of new microbial natural products poses a series of challenges, but also a series of significant advantages. By labelling microbial cells in the environment based on their genetic potential to produce bioactive compounds, we will be able to isolate and utilize the genetic material from the most promising individuals in natural microbial communities. This will alter the way we exploit microbial communities as such, and in the process, we will record which microbial communities harbors the largest biosynthetic potential at a hitherto unseen resolution. 

What is your estimate of the impact, which your project may have to society in the long term?

We are currently facing what the WHO has termed the post-antibiotic era, a place where we are no longer able to treat even the most common infections with the antibiotics at our disposal. The results we seek to obtain during this project will be crucial for our ability to counter this development. In addition, an international frontline project such as this will create the optimal framework for students and young scientists to experience state-of-the-art science and methodological concepts. These concepts can be further developed and applied in other relevant areas within the pharma- and biotech industries. 

Which impact do you expect the Sapere Aude programme will have on your career as a researcher?

The Sapere Aude grant is extremely important for my future research career as it represents an opportunity to consolidate myself as a research leader through the formation of a forceful research group with the capacity and competences needed to perform science of the highest international standards. In addition, this grant will ensure that I can explore my own ideas and, over the time course of four years, create an identity and a foundation on which I can build through the acquisition of further external funding.

Background and personal life

My 10-year-old daughter and I live on inner Nørrebro in Copenhagen where we enjoy the many cultural and gastronomical experiences the city has to offer. When in need of contrast, we visit my hometown in western Jutland where we see the family, the forest, and the sea. As a scientist and a dad, everyday life is often busy and hectic, but I make an effort to make room for recreational activities such as weight training, cooking, photography, and angling.

City of current residence

High school
Varde Gymnasium