A hive of sweet discovery

By | Science & Technology
A bee collecting nectar for its colony. Credit@Simonviaflickr.com

The honeybee brings colour and diversity to the landscape, as it pollinates flowers and delivers food to the rest of its colony. Whilst an intrinsic part of this natural cycle, the honeybee may provide people with a sweet supply of food. Honey is traditionally used as a food source, however there are a number of other applications for this sweet secretion. Scientists have recently begun to carefully examine honey and its use as an antibiotic. Researchers at the University of Lund in Sweden are examining its complex ingredients to determine why it effectively suppresses microbes. Embracing novel antibiotics is important for a future of improved healthcare.

Using the nectar collected from flowers, bees produce honey in a specially evolved stomach. Their stomach enzymes are designed to convert nectar into a more stable form that they may store in the hive.  For millennia, people have collected the honeybee’s sweet resource and used it for its antibiotic properties, as well as food. It is fresh honey that possesses antibiotic abilities. The honey stocked in supermarkets contains inactive versions of the microbes that produce these antibiotics.

A research team at the University of Lund in Sweden has examined fresh honey to identify the key antibiotic ingredients. They found a unique set of 13 lactic acid microbes (LAB) which are able to produce an array of antibiotics. These LABs were tested, under laboratory conditions, for their effectiveness to fight antibiotic resistant versions of MRSA. In all experiments they were successful. Outside of the lab, a concoction of LAB and honey effectively healed ten horses’ wounds, which had been previously resistant to antibiotic treatment.  Whilst it is yet to be tested on people, the team at Lund are confident it would show similar results.

Bees making honey at the hive. Credit@reway2007viaflickr.com.

Bees making honey at the hive. Credit@reway2007viaflickr.com.

One Lund researcher, medical microbiologist Tobias Olofsson, explains that the LAB’s effectiveness is due to its flexibility in synthesising these defensive compounds. “When used alive, these 13 LABs produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed.” Whilst conventional antibiotics are designed to treat specific conditions, LAB may adapt to protect itself from a variety of microbes. “It seems to have worked well for millions of years of protecting bees’ health and honey against other microorganisms,” continues Olofsson. The honeybee and the LABs have evolved to work together and ultimately protect the hive. This historical partnership may be key to the creation of new antibiotics to treat conditions such as MRSA. This research highlights the importance of protecting wild honeybee populations, which may hold potential medical benefits as well as sustaining ecosystems through plant pollination.

Novel antibiotics are surfacing from other sources too. A report from science journal ‘Cell’ demonstrated that a microbe living in the human vagina produced a new antibiotic. Researchers from the University of California believe that this antibiotic, lactocillin, is one of many that the human body’s microbial ecosystem is capable of producing. Whilst lactocillin may be used as a drug to treat vaginal conditions, the implications of this discovery may lead to greater research into the microorganisms living inside the human body. Scientists believe that extracting compounds, such as lactocillin, may be important in creating new drugs and antibiotics.

After more clinical studies and research, compounds from novel sources such as fresh honey or the human body may create a greater number of effective antibiotics. Honey is, potentially, an especially useful source of antibiotics for developing countries where it is widely available. Honey may also be important globally as alternative antibiotics may be required in the future. By preserving honeybee populations and continuing to analyse microbial ecosystems, scientists may help secure the future of global healthcare.

How might antibiotic research secure a healthier future?

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