Ancient Irish Healing Cure Turns Out to Be a Modern Lifesaver

"It seems that part of the answer to this very modern problem might lie in the wisdom of the past."

One of today’s most deadly challenges to public health is the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the United States alone, 2 million people are infected with an antibiotic-resistant infection annually; the World Health Organization has warned of the “post-antibiotic era.” An urgent hunt for new antibiotics in nature puts the spotlight back on an ancient remedy used thousands of years ago by Ireland’s Druids.

As it turns out, one solution to our antibiotic resistance woes could be right under our feet — if you’re walking in the Boho Highlands of Northern Ireland. Scientists write in Frontiers in Microbiology that alkaline soil sampled from the Sacred Heart Church in the town of Toneel North contains a new strain of bacteria they named Streptomyches sp. myrophorea. Testing revealed that this strain inhibited the growth of four of the six multi-resistant pathogens identified by the WHO as “high priority pathogens.”

While this strain of bacteria is new to science, the dirt where it was sourced has been used in Irish folk medicine for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Boho Highlands region was a place of significance to Neolithic people, Druids, and early Christian missionaries. Although the exact origin of the remedy is unknown, a locally practiced treatment for toothaches and infections is placing a small portion of the soil, wrapped in cloth, next to the ailment.

Sacred Heart Church, Ireland
Graveyard at the Sacred Heart Church in Boho.

“Our results show that folklore and traditional medicines are worth investigating in the search for new antibiotics,” co-author and Swansea University Medical School professor Paul Dyson, Ph.D. announced Thursday. “Scientists, historians, and archeologists can all have something to contribute to this task. It seems that part of the answer to this very modern problem might lie in the wisdom of the past.”

This new strain of bacteria belongs to the genus Streptomyces, which includes more than 500 species found in soil and water. Certain species members have already been used to produce over two-thirds of clinically useful antibiotics of natural origin because they are capable of producing secondary metabolites.

“These bacteria produce a plethora of bioactive secondary metabolites that have a range of uses including as antimicrobials, anti-cancer agents, anti-fungal agents, in addition to various other medicinally important compounds,” study co-author and Swansea senior research officer Matthew Hitchings, Ph.D. tells Inverse.

bacteria
Although they superficially resemble fungi, Streptomyces are bacteria used in various antibiotics.

Here, Dyson and his team established that Streptomyches sp. myrophorea inhibits the growth of antibiotic-resistant pathogens Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumonia, and Acinetobacter baumanii. These pathogens, known in the medical community as multi-resistant ESKAPE pathogens, are responsible for healthcare-associated infections, are extremely difficult to treat, and can easily spread in hospital and community environments.

The study authors note that it was thought that developing new antibiotics from combinatorial chemistry could eliminate these resistant bacteria, but years of trials have not produced useful drugs. This, plus the fact that “the production of new antibiotics tapered off in the early 1980s due to unfavorable conditions,” has led to a crisis in supply.

So scientists are now searching niche environments, like alkaline environments and thermal vents, hoping they’ll find exotic varieties of the antibiotic strains known to work. Currently, this team is figuring out exactly which component of the new strain prevents the growth of pathogens. Purifying and identifying antibiotics from that strain can lead to the new drugs that are so desperately needed.

“Whilst we have yet to identify the exact compound or compounds responsible for these promising findings, our work continues in not only manipulating this strain in the lab, but also exploring the genomics of this and other organisms,” Hitchings says. “It is hoped that this continued research may lead to the development of novel drugs that can help improve the fight against current anti-microbial resistance and, in the long term, improve public health and well-being.”