Antibiotics in Ancient Bones

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Antibiotic medicines are fairly easy to come by these days, and one of the most common — tetracycline — can be used to treat anything from urinary tract infections to acne flare-ups. But would you believe that this bacteria-fighting drug might have been used more than 2,000 years ago? I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. George Armelagos is a professor of Anthropology at Emory University. He and his colleagues discovered traces of tetracycline in some well-preserved bones found in Sudan, in Africa.

“When we started looking at the bone, we found that first of all ninety percent of the individuals had the tetracycline. So that means that it couldn’t have been sort of a chance occurrence. This was something that they were probably ingesting throughout their lifetime consistently. So then what we did is we started thinking about what are the possibilities of how this could get into the system. Tetracycline is produced by streptomycedes, which is a mold-like bacteria. And it produces tetracycline as essentially a defense against other bacterias. So then, when we knew that somehow the streptomycedes would have to have contaminated the food.”

Armelegos and his colleagues started out by investigating the consumption of grain within the ancient population. And then they realized that an interesting possibility was staring them right in the face…

“We looked at ways in which grain were used, and one of the things that we noticed is that grain was used to make beer. And then all of the sudden, it was just like an epiphany. We realized that this process of making beer might be the source of it.”

Well, beer drinkers take note. By researching ancient recipes, scientists were able to make a beer that contained tetracycline.

If you’d like to hear about our new Pulse of the Planet CD, please visit our website at pulseplanet.com. Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

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Antibiotics in Ancient Bones

Traces of tetracycline have been found in the bones of people who lived more than 2,000 years ago, and scientists think that their diet may have been the cause.
Air Date:07/11/2011
Scientist:
Transcript:

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Antibiotic medicines are fairly easy to come by these days, and one of the most common -- tetracycline -- can be used to treat anything from urinary tract infections to acne flare-ups. But would you believe that this bacteria-fighting drug might have been used more than 2,000 years ago? I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. George Armelagos is a professor of Anthropology at Emory University. He and his colleagues discovered traces of tetracycline in some well-preserved bones found in Sudan, in Africa.

"When we started looking at the bone, we found that first of all ninety percent of the individuals had the tetracycline. So that means that it couldn't have been sort of a chance occurrence. This was something that they were probably ingesting throughout their lifetime consistently. So then what we did is we started thinking about what are the possibilities of how this could get into the system. Tetracycline is produced by streptomycedes, which is a mold-like bacteria. And it produces tetracycline as essentially a defense against other bacterias. So then, when we knew that somehow the streptomycedes would have to have contaminated the food."

Armelegos and his colleagues started out by investigating the consumption of grain within the ancient population. And then they realized that an interesting possibility was staring them right in the face...

"We looked at ways in which grain were used, and one of the things that we noticed is that grain was used to make beer. And then all of the sudden, it was just like an epiphany. We realized that this process of making beer might be the source of it."

Well, beer drinkers take note. By researching ancient recipes, scientists were able to make a beer that contained tetracycline.

If you'd like to hear about our new Pulse of the Planet CD, please visit our website at pulseplanet.com. Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

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