Newly discovered bacterial compounds are so good at killing fungi that scientists named them after movie star Keanu Reeves, who’s known for efficiently defeating villains in action films like The Matrix and John Wick.
The compounds—called keanumycins—create holes in the surface of fungal pathogens, effectively bleeding them to death, as Sebastian Götze at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology in Germany, tells the New York Times’ Emily Schmall.
“We were just basically blown away by the high activity,” Götze tells the Washington Post’s Kyle Melnick. “That’s why we basically said, ‘Yeah, it’s like an assassin, a hit man or something, killing a couple of different fungi very effectively.’”
Keanumycins are created from soil- and water-dwelling bacteria in the genus Pseudomonas, which use these compounds as protection against amoebas that feed on them. Researchers suspected the effective killers might also work against fungi, which share some of the same characteristics as the amoebas, per a statement.
In a study recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, lead author Götze and his colleagues describe keanumycins’ strength against a common plant pest that causes a gray mold rot. Called Botrytis cinerea, it affects more than 200 types of fruits and vegetables, including strawberries and grapes, per the statement. The researchers used keanumycins to significantly clear this blight from hydrangea leaves.
The newly identified compounds could be an affordable and environmentally friendly alternative to fungus-killing chemicals used in agriculture, per the paper.
“This study documents another exciting means by which microbes have evolved to compete with and fight other organisms,” Matt Nelsen, a researcher from Chicago’s Field Museum who was not involved in the study, tells CNN’s Taylor Nicioli in an email. “Over time, many pathogenic organisms—including fungi—have evolved resistance to the chemicals we use to battle them. Consequently, we need to find a new way to ‘outsmart’ or ‘one-up’ them.”
The team also found the substance combats some fungi that infect humans. Specifically, it can target Candida albicans, a species commonly found in the human body that can cause yeast infections if it multiplies out of control. Tests have shown the keanumycins are not highly toxic against human cells, so they could be used to develop new antifungal medications, which researchers say are highly needed.
“We have an antibiotic crisis,” Götze tells the Post. “There are a lot of bacteria at the moment, especially in hospitals, who are largely resistant against different antibiotics, and the same is also true for fungi. Not many new antibiotics, at the moment, are being developed, and the same also goes for antifungals.”
Reeves isn’t the first celebrity to have a scientific discovery named after him. Recently, researchers named a uniquely colored frog Hyloscirtus tolkieni after The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien. Entomologist Terry Erwin, who was a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, named the Costa Rican beetle Agra katewinsletae after actress Kate Winslet, because, as he once said, “her character did not go down with the ship, but we will not be able to say the same for this elegant canopy species, if all the rain forest is converted to pastures.”
During a Reddit question-and-answer session on Saturday, Reeves responded to a question about his fungus-killing namesake: “They should’ve called it John Wick,” he wrote. “But that’s pretty cool … and surreal for me. But thanks, scientist people! Good luck, and thank you for helping us.”