A research team that is searching for new ways of defeating antibiotic-resistant bacteria have discovered that a sample of soil from a region in Northern Ireland traditionally known for its healing properties contains a previously unknown strain of bacteria that is effective at combating the so-called "superbugs" that threaten the lives of millions of people every year. If successful, this new treatment comes from a source that would previously have been dismissed as being merely "folk medicine".

This new strain of bacteria, called Streptomyces sp. myrophorea by the multinational research team, has antibacterial properties that are apparently effective against four out of the six top antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains that it was tested against. These "superbugs" — strains of bacteria that are immune to the effects of traditional antibiotic compounds — are predicted to be responsible for the deaths of up to 1.3 million people in Europe by 2050, with the World Health Organization describing the problem as "one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today."

One avenue of research that may avert such a problem is a new field of study called "ethnopharmacology", the study of traditional and folk medicines as a source of new treatments to ailments that have eluded modern science. As part of their studies in this field, the research team, based in Swansea University Medical School in Wales, tested soil samples from the Boho Highlands, an area in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, known for its healing properties. Traditionally, a small amount of soil would be wrapped in a cotton cloth and used to treat many ailments such as toothaches, throat and neck infections. 1,500 years ago, the area was inhabited by a Druidic culture, and before that Neolithic peoples called Fermanagh home as far back as 4,000 years ago.

"This new strain of bacteria is effective against 4 of the top 6 pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics, including MRSA," according to Swansea University Medical School’s Professor Paul Dyson. "Our discovery is an important step forward in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

"Our results show that folklore and traditional medicines are worth investigating in the search for new antibiotics. Scientists, historians and archaeologists 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."

The team’s findings may also hold good news for other types of health problems. "We will now concentrate on the purification and identification of these antibiotics," explains Dr. Gerry Quinn, also part of the research team. "We have also discovered additional antibacterial organisms from the same soil cure which may cover a broader spectrum of multi-resistant pathogens." 

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