Bacteria Discovered in Irish Dirt Kills Superbugs

A previously unknown germ found in Northern Ireland soil that had been ascribed with 'healing properties' actually inhibits four of six huge superbugs, scientists report in Frontiers in Microbiology

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Growth of the newly discovered Streptomyces sp. myrophorea, so named because it produces a distinctive fragrance similar to that of oil of wintergreen. Although superficially resembling fungi, Streptomyces are true bacteria and are the source of two-thirds of the various frontline antibiotics used in medicine.
They look like fungi but they're Streptomyces sp. myrophorea bacteriaCredit: G Quinn / Swansea University

We all know those theories that nonsterile substances such as honey or cow dung have certain medicinal properties. While it really depends what one wants to achieve, how about dirt from Ireland?

That's a big yes, according to a team based in Swansea University Medical School, made up of researchers from Wales, Brazil, Iraq and Northern Ireland. At least if said dirt contains a newly discovered bacteria named Streptomyces sp. Myrophorea, which turns out to kill at least some superbugs.

Wondrously, soil from Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, had long been thought to have "healing properties," say the researchers in Frontiers in Microbiology. And lo, it did. The scientists discovered that it contains a previously unknown strain of bacteria that turns out to hurt four of the top six superbugs, says the team.

One of the team, Dr. Gerry Quinn, a previous resident of Boho, County Fermanagh, had heard about the purported properties of the dirt, which was traditionally wrapped in cotton cloth and used to heal ailments such as toothache, throat and neck infections.

"Superbugs" is a euphemism for bacterial strains that developed resistance to antibiotics. They developed because people have abused the wondrous privilege that is antibiotics for decades, practically since the discovery and proliferation of drugs that can target bacteria.

It has become trivial to swallow or smear antibiotics for everything from appendicitis to acne. Farm animals and crops may be grown with them as a default condition. Sometimes antibiotics are even prescribed for people with viral conditions (the drugs won't help and may even do damage, but even if the disease doesn't go away, at least the patient does).

Overuse of antibiotics – especially combined with improper use – kills the weaker bacteria in a given strain and leaves only the strongest. That, combined with the bacterial penchant to mutate madly, led to the development of superbugs.

The foursome whose growth (in the lab) was inhibited by said Streptomyces are: vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE); methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA); Klebsiella pneumonia; and Carbenepenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumanii.

Enterococcus can live with you in peace or can kill you. The resistant form has become a huge source of infection, notably among patients using medical devices such as central lines, urinary catheters, and ventilators. Staph aureus causes pimples but can also kill when it gets nasty, Klebsiella pneumonia is self-explanatory and Acinetobacter baumanii has become the scourge of the immune-compromised in hospitals

Ever taken streptomycin?

The family of Streptomyces bacteria is enormous, by the way. More than 500 species have been identified and, yes, they are (by and large) our friends. These germs actually excrete clinically useful molecules, from antibiotics to antifungals, and even substances that inhibit multicellular parasites.

Streptomycin, once a commonly used antibiotic, is made by a strain of Streptomyces, but too many bacteria grew resistant to it. Such is the irony of bacteriology.

Zone of inhibition produced by Streptomyces sp myrophorea on a lawn of MRSA superbugsCredit: G Quinn / Swansea University

Make no mistake, some Streptomyces are not our friends – not because they harm us, but because they harm potatoes. Streptomyces scabiei is the culprit behind potato scab. It has a cousin that causes sweet potato rot. But any bacteria that kills superbugs can compensate us for scarred root vegetables.

Meanwhile, superbugs are already wreaking devastation. E. coli lives with us naturally, but dangerous forms of the bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics are killing tens of thousands of people a year.  Resistant tuberculosis, gonorrhea and syphilis have been on the rise, and all can be fatal.

A study published in The Lancet last November estimated that 16 types of superbugs caused 33,000 deaths in the European Union alone in 2015.

Superbugs could kill up to 1.3 million people in Europe by the year 2050, the researchers say, citing other studies.

This is not the only antibiotic serendipitously found in soil. Cephalosporium was first found in sewage in Sardinia in 1945, and after some years of work by a number of people around the world, we were gifted with the broad-spectrum antibiotic cephalosporin C.

So, does this study indicate that if you are sick you should roll around in the dirt of your yard? No.