Monday, August 30, 2010

Ancient brewers tapped antibiotic secrets

The ancient Egyptians and Jordanians used beer to treat gum disease and other ailments.

By Carol Clark

A chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming tetracycline, most likely in their beer. The finding is the strongest evidence yet that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago.

The research, led by Emory anthropologist George Armelagos and medicinal chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc., is published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

“We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine,” Armelagos says. “But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this prehistoric population was using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents. I have no doubt that they knew what they were doing.”

Armelagos is a bioarcheologist and an expert on prehistoric and ancient diets. 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.

Green fluorescence in Nubian skeletons indicated tetracycline-labeled bone, the first clue that the ancients were producing the antibiotic.

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.

Nelson, a leading expert in tetracycline and other antibiotics, became interested in the project after hearing Armelagos speak at a conference. “I told him to send me some mummy bones, because I had the tools and the expertise to extract the tetracycline,” Nelson says. “It’s a nasty and dangerous process. I had to dissolve the bones in hydrogen fluoride, the most dangerous acid on the planet.”

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.”

(The yellow film in the flask, at right, shows tetracycline residue from dissolved bones.)

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.

Egyptian 12th-dynasty figures shows workers grinding, baking and fermenting grain, to make bread and beer. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The first of the modern day tetracyclines was discovered in 1948. It was given the name auereomycin, after the Latin word “aerous,” which means containing gold. “Streptomyces produce a golden colony of bacteria, and if it was floating on a batch of beer, it must have look pretty impressive to ancient people who revered gold,” Nelson theorizes.

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.

The chemical confirmation of tetracycline in ancient bones is not the end of the story for Armelagos. He remains enthused after more than three decades on the project. “This opens up a whole new area of research,” he says. “Now we’re going to compare the amount of tetracycline in the bones, and bone formation over time, to determine the dosage that the ancient Nubians were getting.”

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  1. Really old news..

  2. This is "old" news in the sense that it's incremental science that's been developing over decades. The new element is the chemical analysis, revealing the large amount of tetracycline in the bones, indicating that the Nubians were deliberately brewing the stuff.

  3. Let's just call it "olds" ...but let us not be done with it.

  4. This is very interesting, but not really surprising. Many ancient practices that seem at first to be purely superstitious had some basis in fact.

  5. Yes. Don't forget that there actually were reasonable, smart people in ancient times as well.

  6. A.D. 350 and 550 is prehistoric??

  7. The A.D. 350 to 550 Nubian populations studied left no written record and are prehistoric, although writing existed in other areas at the time.

  8. Out of Africa always something new...... (to us)

  9. I don't think it was intentional somehow. At best they might have discovered 'hey, when the beer has this yellow stuff on it, it makes people get better somehow!'. It's very likely that they didn't know what they were doing or how it worked - just that this particular way of making beer produced beer that made people somehow get better when they were sick.
    But like the best discoveries, it was probably a complete accident the first time.

    1. Gee you're saying the smartest and most advanced civilizations are only the ones that exist now? Who do you think the Greeks and Romans learned from...let me guess?