Thursday, July 04, 2013

300,000 antibiotics that you can safely take- without a prescription!

On 24th August 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying alive, residents of two Roman cities- Pompeii and Herculaneum. 2000 years later- in 1980’s- archaeologists excavating the two cities, noticed something peculiar. In the skeletons recovered, they found people having skull lesions, rib damage, foot injuries and even scratching lice. What surprised the scientist was that they did not find any evidence of infections. Considering the poor hygiene and sanitation of those times, infections should have been common. So they wondered why the infections were so rare. A study of their diet revealed the answer. Examination of two particular foods- dried pomegranates and figs- revealed that the fruit was contaminated by Streptomyces bacteria. Streptomyces are a large group of harmless bacteria, found abundantly in soil. They release substances that play a critical role in the environment by decomposing organic matter. Streptomyces today, is known for its ability to produce an astonishing variety of drugs, upto 2/3rd of the antibiotics in human and veterinary medicines are produced by them- the most well known of which is tetracycline. When scientist tested the bones of the Herculaneum residents, they found clear evidence that they had been exposed to tetracycline. The Roman preserved their fruits by drying. To dry the fruits, they buried it in beds of straw. The fruit was contaminated by Streptomyces bacteria and by eating these fruits the ancient Romans unknowingly dosed themselves with tetracycline antibiotics and thereby protected themselves from general infections. Also in 1980’s anthropologists uncovered skeletons of Sudanese Nubian’s who lived on the west bank of Nile River in 350 AD. Their skeletons too were free of infections and traces of tetracycline were found in their bones. Scientist believe that they got their dose of Streptomyces bacteria from their diet of wheat, barley and millet, which they stored in mud bins. Mud storage bins provide the ideal environment for Streptomycetes. In 1915 Selman Waksman, decided to hunt for chemicals produced by soil bacteria to treat ‘tubercle bacillus’ which caused tuberculosis. After years of research he discovered two substances with antibiotic properties- actinomycin (1940) and streptothricin (1942) but both turned out to be toxic on humans. Finally in 1943, Albert Schatz, a PhD student in his lab hit “pay dirt” when he discovered two strains of Streptomyces bacteria that could stop ‘tubercle bacillus’ cold. The new antibiotic was named streptomycin and in a few years became the best selling drug, saving millions of people from TB.  Waksman and his team also isolated a number of other antibiotics from soil- including clavacin, streptothricin, grisein, neomycin, fradicin, candicidin and candidin. In 2001 issue of ‘Archives of Microbiology’, researchers claimed that they found Streptomyces bacteria may be capable of producing as many as 294,300 different antibiotics. So for your free dose of antibiotics (most of them undiscovered) get down and dirty. Dig a hole and plant a sapling, start gardening, get your hands dirty with some container gardening, grow your own organic fruits and vegetables and eat them raw and finally don’t mind when you child gets down and dirty. After all 500 species of Streptomyces are looking after you. Finally, do not use any pesticides and chemicals, that kills them- it’s the least we can do for our microscopic friends.
P.S.: Spread the word and let the world know that we have a pharmaceutical giant, right under out feet.

Trivia: In 2002, researchers announced in ‘Nature’ that they decoded the entire genetic sequence of a representative species of streptomyces, uncovering an estimated 7,825 genes. We humans have about 20,000 genes and our microscopic friend has about a third of what we have!! Quite a genetic engine it is!

1 comment:

  1. Aarina9:43 am

    An awesome read love! Well, I use gloves now. Remember, the time I didn't and a month and a half of swelling at my parotid gland! Excruciating pain for 4 days! I wonder, if it were these Streptomyces friends who found some infection and the body decided to cordon it off at the parotid gland! Interesting! Henceforth, I will dose myself slowly with these friends of ours! Good to know! And it just occurred to me, that this could be one of the reasons, why at the Kerala Ayurvedic Centre, they happened to apply mud onto the inflamed portions of my body! And maybe in the process, I ingested some of it, unless, these friends also have the ability to cross the skin barrier!