Several years ago biochemists studying marine ecosystems noticed something unusual: a sponge thriving in the middle of a coral reef that was dying from a bacterial infection. The researchers identified a substance made by the sponge that defended it from harmful microbes and realized it was a natural antibacterial molecule called ageliferin. Ageliferin can break down the formation of a protective biofilm coating that bacteria use to shield themselves from threats, including antibiotic drugs.

Now a team of researchers at North Carolina State University is using the natural compound to create innovative ways to fight drug-resistant bacteria. The researchers have recently tweaked the structure of ageliferin to make it more potent and formulated it to help conventional medications combat otherwise drug-resistant bacteria, such as staph and cholera. “Our chemical doesn’t stop the bugs from proliferating. It just allows the anti­biotic to work again,” says Christian Melander, a chemistry professor at the university who was part of the effort.

Melander and his team hope to eventually incorporate the altered ageliferin as a helper drug within commercial antibiotic products, allowing them to fight off formerly drug-resistant strains of diseases.