Antibiotic properties unearthed in Northern Irish soil

15 Jan 2021

West Fermanagh scarplands. Image: Traditional Medicine Group

Ancient Irish folk medicine has led a team of international scientists to west Fermanagh to find antibiotic-producing organisms.

According to the OECD, antibiotic-resistant superbugs could kill up to 1.3m people in Europe by 2050. Recent research from the World Health Organisation also suggests that the European region is now at risk of an accelerated spread of antimicrobial resistance due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This has led researchers to explore new sources of antibiotics, and now a team of international scientists may have found a potential answer in Northern Irish soil.

The Traditional Medicine Group, an international collaboration of scientists from Swansea University, Brazil and Northern Ireland, has discovered that soil used in ancient Irish folk medicine in the west Fermanagh scarplands contains several species of antibiotic-producing organisms, including Streptomyces.

This area of caves, alkaline grassland and bog is scattered with many remnants of Neolithic habitation, and it’s not the first time the soil has been found to produce superbug-fighting qualities.

In 2018, an analysis of the soil there led to the team discovering a previously unknown strain of bacteria effective against four of the top six hospital superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics, including MRSA.

‘Great potential’

The group discovered that the latest finding was able to express an even wider range of antimicrobial activity than the previous discovery. Results from the latest research have been published in MDPI Applied Microbiology and the DNA sequence has been deposited in the American national collection.

Dr Paul Facey, one of the lead researchers from Swansea University, said: “The fact that traditional medicine is incorporated in many local folk tales led us to believe that there was a good possibility of finding strong antibiotic-producing organisms in other locations in these limestone hills.”

Antibiotic tests carried out by the researchers found that the Streptomyces species inhibits the growth of a number of multi-resistant organisms including anaerobic bacteria, which can cause serious infections in deep wounds, and MRSA.

While the team has not yet chemically identified the compounds responsible for antibiotic activity, early analysis shows genetic similarities to other known antibiotic production genes.

Researcher Hamid Bakshi of Ulster University said the team is “confident in the great potential of our most recent discovery to provide many interesting discoveries”.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic