Bacteria in Beards May Lead to Antibiotic Possibilities

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Bacteria in Beards May Lead to Antibiotic PossibilitiesEarly last May, headlines exploded with news that a study had found that beards contain more fecal matter than toilets. It was a tantalizing, outrageous, and amusing news item. It was also completely false—a mixture of misstated findings, hyperbolic reporting, and sensationalism that missed the point entirely. (And as it turns out: facial hair may be cleaner than you think)

For one scientist, however, the hoax may have resulted in new ways to fight antibiotic resistance.

Microbiologist Adam Roberts spends his days running a program called “Swab and Send”, which allows everyday people to send in swab samples from around the world to be tested for possible antimicrobial uses and bacterial content. He has tested samples from keyboards, bank notes, the floor of a London subway, public restroom toilets, and more. It is a job that made Roberts uniquely placed when he caught wind of the “poop-in-beards” story.

Roberts took samples from the beards of 20 men and began to sift through the roughly 100 types of bacteria found within. The results were both expected—no fecal matter detected—but also surprising when Roberts tested the samples for antibiotic properties. Bacteria isolated from the beards were put in a growth medium along with an indicator bacteria strain to see how the two interacted. Remarkably, a quarter of the beard bacteria began to kill off the indicators, meaning they were producing their own antibiotic substances.

There is, of course, a distinct difference between being able to kill a test bacterium in a petri dish and being able to kill resistant strains of MRSA or other bacterial infections, but the results offer a promising lead. Antibiotic resistance and the resulting “superbugs” cause around 2 million infections and a minimum of 23,000 deaths every year. This doesn’t account the deaths from other conditions acquired by a resistant infection, which is not uncommon in healthcare settings. Antibiotic resistance has advanced to the point where strains that are resistant to colistin, considered the antibiotic of last resort, have begun to appear.

Part of the cause behind growing antibiotic resistance is that the variety of available antibiotics has not changed much since the tail end of the 1960’s. With the same treatments in use for decades without enough variance, resistance can build and spread. One of the goals of Roberts’ Swab and Send project is to devise enough new antibiotics that they can be rotated in and out, reducing or eliminating the rate of emerging resistances.

Sources for Today’s Article:
“Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the US,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site, September 16, 2013;
Stock, M., “Beard bacteria could lead to new antibiotics,” Reuters web site, February 2, 2016;
“Bacteria Now Resistant Even to ‘last Resort’ Antibiotics.” New Scientist web site. November 18, 2015;