Taming lions is so 20th century, and they never gave anybody anything but heartache and fleas. If you have Siberian brown bears around and a skin condition, though, it’s a whole other story, one may glean from a report published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Siberian brown bears (Ursus arctos collaris) – at least the ones tested by heroic Russian scientists – turn out to have a bacterium in their saliva that kills another bacterium called Staphylococcus aureus. Which has, in turn, been implicated in the development of acne vulgaris, eczema and other distressing skin conditions.
Note that people can get acne without testing positive for Staphylococcus aureus. Nor is the staph variant’s role in the development of acne entirely clear. Half the people walking the planet have this staph, yet only a small percent develop skin eruptions.
So staphylococcus aureus probably lives on your skin too, and in your nose. It is among the normal skin flora. The two of you exist in what scientists call a “commensal” relationship. It benefits the bacteria, and you neither benefit nor suffer.
Pimples or acne may ensue when hair follicles are damaged and become infected by the staph, a condition known as folliculitis, which can happen anywhere you have hair. Which is pretty much everywhere. And sometimes the folliculitis is caused by the staph.
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The germ found in the Siberian brown bear’s mouth is Bacillus pumilus, which proved to produce the staph-killer antibiotic amicoumacin A.
The study also found, however, that the Bacillus pumilus can become resistant to amicoumacin A. In other words, putting your face in the bear’s mouth may stop working as a pimple relief after some time. You stand warned.
Yes, the Russian Academy of Sciences, other Russian institutions, Yale and others really were seeking an antibiotic that kills Staphylococcus aureus in bear saliva.
Just to be clear, analysis of microbiomes – which means bacterial populations – can be indicative of lifestyle. The mouth of a meat-eater would have different bacteria from the mouth of a plant-eater, and so on. The carnivore, the herbivore and the piscivore would each have very different bacteria, even if the carnivore just ate the herbivore or piscivore. Why do we care?
Because in science’s perennial, frantic search for new medicines to treat bacteria, fungi and every other objectionable life form that makes us sick, science has begun looking at the bacterial populations in the mouths of wild animals.
Stanislav Terekhov and colleagues call our untamed friends “an underestimated resource” for biota screening.
And why would they look in the mouths of wild animals rather than, say, goats or dogs? Because of the wild beings' “ability to thrive while surrounded by aggressive microorganisms.” Among the reasons for their well-being, insofar as they have it, could be protective microorganisms in their unwitting possession.
One last note. Different people have different biomes, which led to a rash of evidently unsubstantiated hope about future personalized diet advice. (Eat less, exercise more, the end.) Siberian brown bears would have different personalized biomes, too. And they probably have completely different oral germ sets than their cousins – the Kamchatka brown bear, Eurasian brown bear, the American brown bear and the Syrian brown bear, which is really a sort of pretty ashen honey color.
Given the uncertainties, you’re probably best off ignoring yawning bears and investing in soap.