If you were in search of a new, disease-fighting antibiotic, where might you start? In a swamp? A remote island? Well, how about combing beards?
Finding bacteria which appear to be producing a novel form of antibiotic, is altogether more significant. What was particularly delightful was that they were found growing in someone’s beard. Beards, as you may have noticed, are back. Critics claim that beards are not only an irritating affectation, but can potentially harbour unpleasant bugs.
But is this typical? A recent and rather more scientific study, carried in an American hospital, came to very different conclusions. In this study, published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, they swabbed the faces of 408 hospital staff with and without facial hair. Well, the researchers were surprised to find that it was the clean-shaven staff, and not the beardies, who were more likely to be carrying something unpleasant on their faces.
The beardless group were more than three times as likely to be harbouring a species known as Methicillin-resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA) on their freshly shaven cheeks. MRSA is a particularly common and troublesome source of hospital-acquired infections because it is resistant to so many of our current antibiotics.
So what’s going on? The researchers suggested that shaving might cause micro-abrasions in the skin ‘which may support bacterial colonisation and proliferation’. But there was another more plausible explanation staring them in the face. That beards fight infection. Well, driven by curiosity we recently swabbed the beards of a random assortment of men and sent them off to Dr Adam Roberts, a microbiologist based at University College London, to see what, if anything, he could grow. In a few of the petri dishes Adam noticed that something was clearly killing the other bacteria. The most obvious suspect was a fellow microbe.
Are these mysterious microbes killing fellow bacteria by producing some sort of toxin? “Yes,” says Adam extremely cautiously. “Possibly.” Adam indentified the silent assassins as part of a species called Staphylococcus epidermidis. When he tested them against a particularly drug-resistant form of Eschercichia coli (E. coli), the sort that cause urinary tract infections, they killed with abandon.
As well as our beardy findings, Adam’s team have recently isolated, from microbes sent in by the general public, anti-adhesion molecules which stop bacteria binding to other surfaces. They think there may be potential for adding this to toothpaste and mouthwash, as it could stop acid-producing bacteria from binding to enamel. Surprising, isn’t it, what you can find in a beard?