Ethan Van Arnam Awarded Grant from National Institutes of Health

Photograph of Professor Ethan Van Arnam, a blond man with glasses.

For his efforts in finding new antibiotics and other agents with medicinal potential, Associate Professor of Chemistry Ethan Van Arnam and his lab have been awarded a three-year, $400,000+ R15 grant from the Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“I’m excited about all of the new work we’ll be able to do as a result of the grant,” says Van Arnam, who is an assistant professor of chemistry in the Department of Natural Sciences of Pitzer and Scripps Colleges, “but I’m also proud of the substantial scientific foundation that students in my research group have built that made us competitive for this funding.”

Van Arnam serves as principal investigator for the NIH-funded project, “Leveraging symbiosis and desert biogeography for discovery of host-selected natural products,” which aims to find new medicinal molecules in the natural world.

Van Arnam says that the goal of his lab’s research team will be to discover molecules “with medicinal potential” from a very unexpected source: the microbes that live on ants.

“We admit this is a very strange place to be searching, but microbes like bacteria and fungi have actually been a source for many transformative antibiotics, beginning with penicillin,” he says. “We know there are microbes out there in nature producing molecules with the potential to treat diseases.”

During the three-year project, Van Arnam said his team will seek out ways to efficiently search for new antibiotics by figuring out how these molecules and their microbes are distributed in one specific ecological niche: in particular, ants living in the deserts of the American Southwest.

A faculty member of the Department of Natural Sciences since 2017, Van Arnam received a doctorate in chemistry from Caltech and conducted postdoctoral research at Harvard Medical School before arriving in Claremont. His areas of research interest include antibiotic discovery (which is a major focus of the new NIH-funded project) and chemical ecology, which considers how naturally occurring antibiotics and other molecules function in nature.

Van Arnam noted that many of his science students are motivated by issues related to preserving nature and improving the environmental future of the Earth. His lab and this new project provide important reminders about the positive impact of the natural world on humanity and why it’s critically important to preserve the environment in the face of future climate challenges.

“My work is somewhat unusual in that it bridges ecology and chemistry,” he explains, “and it’s been very fun and rewarding to work with students who are interested in merging those fields.”

Besides the disease-fighting research opportunities provided by the NIH grant, Van Arnam said he is also thrilled that the grant will create more research and academic experiences for the department’s students.

“This grant will support a number of new student summer research positions in my lab,” he says, “and it also includes funding so that students can travel to and present their work at national conferences.”