Beer IS good for you! [or Antibiotics: good for what ale’s you]

Nubian Pharaohs Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Nubian Pharaohs Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Famously, stories abound that certain sportsmen have had their beer drinking endorsed by medical professionals
(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1419706/Bill-Werbeniuk.html) as a form of medicine. Apocryphal (a euphemism for ‘probably not true’) as those modern tales may be, a discovery about the ancient art of brewing suggests there may a grain of truth in such accounts. The antibiotic tetracycline (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetracycline) has been identified in human skeletal remains of Sudanese Nubians from the period 350–550 ce (that’s ad in ‘old money’) by Mark Nelson et al. (American Journal of Physical Anthropology 143: 151–154, 2010). What’s the beer connection? Well, it can be conjectured that those ancient brewmasters deliberately used cereal grain infected by Streptomyces (a bacterium that produces tetracycline) to make their beer both nourishing and medicinal. Reflecting on the fact that since the antibiotics were found in skeletons, from dead people, one might wonder if the tetracycline actually worked. Or perhaps it did, but the quantities of beer that had to be consumed in order to deliver enough of the medicine were sufficient to cause death from other causes? It all gets horribly complicated. And, not wishing to add to the confusion caused by the different dating abbreviations, the article itself is actually a BC (Brief Communication).

Health warning: not all microbe-infected cereals are good for you; those infected with ergot or Aspergillus may actually be harmful! You have been warned.

About Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic in a UK university. As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an amusing, educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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