The art of making antibiotics is 2000 years old

September 6th, 2010 - 4:07 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Sep 6 (IANS) Ancient Nubians were regularly consuming antibiotic tetracycline, most likely in their beer, according to a chemical analysis of their bones.
The finding is the strongest evidence yet that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was a common practice nearly 2,000 years ago.

Tetracycline is an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections such as urinary tract infections, chlamydia and acne.

The research was led by Emory University anthropologist George Armelagos in the US and medicinal chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, reports the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

“We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine,” said Armelagos, according to an Emory release.

“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 bio-archeologist 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 350 and 550, populations that left no written record.

Green fluorescence in Nubian skeletons indicated tetracycline-labelled 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.

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.

Even the tibia (leg bone) and skull belonging to a four-year-old were full of tetracycline, suggesting that they were giving high doses to the child to try and cure him of illness, said Nelson.

The ancient Nubian kingdom was located in present-day Sudan, south of ancient Egypt.

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