In the highlands of Boho in Northern Ireland, there’s an old story about soil with medicinal properties. It turns out, this is not just an empty old-wives tale – this folk medicine could hold some real potential in the fight against antibiotic resistance.
Researchers led by Swansea University in the UK have discovered that alkaline soil in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, is home to a previously unknown strain of bacteria, Streptomyces sp. Myrophorea, which is effective against some of the most persistent antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
The recent study, published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, showed that the newly discovered bacteria helped to inhibit the growth of four of the top six multi-resistant pathogens, including the notorious methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). It also appeared to tackle both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria.
The team are still unsure what component of the bacteria prevents the growth of the pathogens, however they are on the case to try to figure it out. They are also looking for new environments where similar bacteria might lurk.
"The discovery of antimicrobial substances from Streptomyces sp.myrophorea will help in our search for new drugs to treat multi-resistant bacteria, the cause of many dangerous and lethal infections,” study author Dr Gerry Quinn said in a statement.
“We will now concentrate on the purification and identification of these antibiotics. We have also discovered additional antibacterial organisms from the same soil cure which may cover a broader spectrum of multi-resistant pathogens."
Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest problems facing humanity today, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). If it continues on its current trajectory, it could kill up to 1.3 million people in Europe by 2050.
The area of Boho, where the soil samples were taken, was once home to the Druids around 1,500 years ago and the Neolithic people some 4,000 years ago. In more recent times, a number of reports show that the soil was used as a traditional remedy for toothaches or throat infections. Traditionally, people would wrap up a small piece of the soil in cotton and apply it to the affected area.
Perhaps, the researchers argue, this soil might have been the reason why many indigenous people settled in the area.
“Our results show that folklore and traditional medicines are worth investigating in the search for new antibiotics. Scientists, historians and archaeologists can all have something to contribute to this task,” added Professor Paul Dyson of Swansea University Medical School. “It seems that part of the answer to this very modern problem might lie in the wisdom of the past."