It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it – microbiologist Adam Roberts recently examined 20 beards in search of fecal matter. Happily, for those beard-wearers and the people who love them, he didn’t find any examples of excretion.
But what he did find is a possible breakthrough in the increasingly desperate global fight against drug-resistant infections.
Roberts’ research began with a fake story that – as so many fake stories do – had gone viral on the Internet. This particular story claimed that beards can contain more fecal matter than the average unwashed toilet.
The article was actually referring to a study that measured the amount of intestinal bacteria found in beards. Bacteria lurks in the gut, on skin, in our mouths and – apparently – in our beards. But the discovery of intestinal bacteria in a beard does not mean its owner has been rinsing his beard in a toilet bowl.
All that said, the BBC wanted to assure its audience that its beards were poo-free. So it asked Roberts to conduct a small study on the “poop in facial hair” theory for its “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor” series.
Roberts was a great choice. As part of a team of researchers based at University College London who are searching for new antibiotics, over the past year he has lead a program called “Swab and Send.” To participate in the project, anyone can simply swab places and things that are likely to be contaminated by bacteria and then submit those samples for analysis.
Roberts explains that “most of the antibiotics we currently rely on are naturally produced by bacteria and fungi from various competitive environments such as soil. These microbes produce lots of different antibiotics to kill their competitors so they can have all the food and space. This gives us an opportunity. If we can find new antibiotics that microbes are producing, we can use them to kill bacteria that cause infections in humans and animals.”
This is where the eager swab-wielding people around the world come in. Roberts asks anyone who wants to contribute to find a “potentially competitive” environment to swab.
“Swabs could be taken from anywhere you find interesting; from drains, sinks, floors, houseplants, compost heaps, the bottom of your shoe, the back of your fridge or puddles (sorry but no human or animal samples allowed). Anywhere that you think different bacteria will be competing for space and food is suitable. We want you to swab the weird and wonderful places your imagination can come up with.”
So far, he’s gotten samples from computer keyboards, Egyptian bank notes, the floor of the London Underground’s Circle Line train, the inside of a toilet in a public bathroom – “That’s real dedication to go anywhere near that,” Roberts joked – and has isolated 20 promising strains capable of killing bacteria and yeast.
Roberts tested the samples collected for the BBC show in his lab, in the same way he tested swabs submitted from around the globe – put the isolates in growth material that contained bacteria. He was surprised to see that about 25 percent of the beards started making their own antibiotics that successfully killed off the bacteria.
It’s true that the bacteria used to test the samples were not the scary multi-drug-resistant strains such as E. coli, MRSA and Candida albicans. But it’s a promising start. Hopefully the beards, along with other samples from the Swab and Send project might help science develop new antibiotics in time to thwart the looming “antibiotic apocalypse.”
Some strains of bacteria have evolved resistance to many antibiotics. The more we use these drugs unnecessarily, the less likely they are to work when we really do need them. As an example, regular dental checkups and professional cleanings can help you control the buildup of bacteria that causes tooth decay, gum infections and other serious health problems.
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