Mike the Mad Biologist

One of the constant assumptions in the field of antibiotic resistance is that the massive exposure of bacteria to antibiotics, and the evolution of resistance to these antibiotics, didn’t occur until after the widespread introduction of penicillin and other antibiotics less than a century ago. But ScienceDaily reports that we might have to rethink this:

A chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming tetracycline, most likely in their beer….

In 1980, he discovered what appeared to be traces of tetracycline in human bones from Nubia dated between A.D. 350 and 550, populations that left no written record. The ancient Nubian kingdom was located in present-day Sudan, south of ancient Egypt.

Armelagos and his fellow researchers later tied the source of the antibiotic to the Nubian beer. The grain used to make the fermented gruel contained the soil bacteria streptomyces, which produces tetracycline. A key question was whether only occasional batches of the ancient beer contained tetracycline, which would indicate accidental contamination with the bacteria.

It doesn’t appear to be accidental contamination of the occasional beer culture:

The results stunned Nelson. “The bones of these ancient people were saturated with tetracycline, showing that they had been taking it for a long time,” he says. “I’m convinced that they had the science of fermentation under control and were purposely producing the drug.”

…Even the tibia and skull belonging to a 4-year-old were full of tetracycline, suggesting that they were giving high doses to the child to try and cure him of illness, Nelson says….

The ancient Egyptians and Jordanians used beer to treat gum disease and other ailments, Armelagos says, adding that the complex art of fermenting antibiotics was probably widespread in ancient times, and handed down through generations.

One wonders what would have happened if we had not lost this knowledge. Would we have been able to cure diseases like typhoid and the black plague, or would antibiotic resistance be incredibly widespread and we would have never developed all the antibiotics we have today?


  1. #1 stripey_cat
    September 8, 2010

    Hmm. I was doubtful of this. He seems to jump straight from grain contaminated by the (fairly widespread) design of silo combined with the local climatic factors, to deliberate and controlled use. IIRC, it also occurs in another unrelated culture in a similar climatic region, with no explanation of why it isn’t something that the groups in between tried to copy – if they knew it was to do with something happening in the silo, why didn’t they try to control their own silos to duplicate the effect; if it was only a product of the way beer turned out in those regions, I don’t think you can call it deliberate or conscious use.

  2. #2 Kaleberg
    September 8, 2010

    Most of our antibiotics are based on bacterial and fungal defense (and sometimes offense) chemicals. Obviously, other organisms have evolved immunities. I know that MRSA researchers have found multiply resistant bacteria in all sorts of soil samples, but this resistance matters a lot less in a soil sample than in a hospital.

    Fermented drinks have long been known to have therapeutic value, though they have also been long associated with addictive and irresponsible behavior. Drinking beer in many societies is much safer than drinking the water. The more friendly organisms keep the less friendly ones at bay.

    We never really lost the knowledge. After all, we still make most of our antibiotics using brewing technology. Suntory in Japan has a big drug production unit, and it was brewers who produced penicillin for World War II.

    One big problem is that brewing never gave precise control over the drink’s therapeutic benefits. Genetic drift, contamination and other effects meant that a tetracycline rich brew today might be quite different and less beneficial 20 years on. If I remember Journal of a Plague Year correctly, there were no taverns in London whose beverage’s were associated with lower death rates, despite an obvious willingness to experiment with regards to prevention and cures.

    The other big problem is that drinking can have pernicious effects in excess. Cross population studies show that societies that drink a lot of red wine have much lower rates of heart disease, and that this swamps negative effects like increased rates of liver disease. Despite this, no one is pushing people to drink more red wine.