Monday, April 16, 2012

Ancient Nubians, Antibiotics and Beer

You may have heard that among the many talents of ancient peoples was the art of brewing beer.  What you might not know is that an ancient Nubian brew appears to have the ability to fight off bacterial infections.  That's right, antibiotics in beer.
Courtesy of Meganhassler
Bioanthropologist George Armelagos made his way to this discovery by first noting the presence of the antibiotic tetracycline in Nubian skeletons from 350-550 A.D.  Collaboration with the medical chemist Mark Nelson led to the conclusion that tetracycline was not merely present in Nubian bones, but their bones were chock-full of tetracycline.

Tetracycline is produced by bacteria in the Streptomyces genusIt is an antibiotic, which means that Streptomyces produces it for defense from its more pathogenic compatriots.  Antibiotics in humans have the same role as they're used to kill pathogenic bacteria.  About two-thirds of the naturally-derived antibiotics used in medicine today come from Streptomyces, including tetracycline which is currently used as a treatment for skin, genitial, urinary and digestive infections. Assumedly it would have prevented against similar infections in ancient times.

Armelagos and his colleagues traced the high presence of tetracycline in Nubian bones back to their practice of drinking beer.  Streptomyces primarily grows in soil so it is possible that the grain they used eat and brew beer had accidental colonies on it, which carried into the finished product.  However, accidental contamination of bread or beer with Streptomyces would not produce the high levels they found in the skeletons; Armelagos and company inferred that Nubians consciously added Streptomyces colonies to their beer.
(As an interesting side-note, the antibiotic properties of Streptomycetes are still being investigated as we did a lab on them in Microbiology here at Allegheny)

Conscious addition implies that Nubians recognized the benefits of tetracycline and capitalized on them.  This recognition would require some solid ancient science but it could be helped along by the fact that many strands of Streptomyces form golden colonies, a color and substance that was (and still is) much adored.  In fact when tetracycline was discovered in the US in 1948 it was named "auereomycin", where the word aerous is Latin for 'containing gold'.  Ancient Nubians may have seen golden colonies, associated them with good fortune and added them to their beer (which at this time was a thick, nutritious drink that all ages enjoyed).  When stomach pain and other aliments decreased after drinking beer supplemented with these golden colonies, the colonies would have been considered miraculous and their addition would have become standard. 

Every time I learn more about ancient peoples I am more impressed.  To think, people 1500 years before us used antibiotics in nearly the same way we do now- it's remarkable!  Ancient Nubians may deserve a  footnote on all of those pages of thanks to Alexander Fleming.

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