How Do You Kill a "Superbug"? Silence It.

The roots of modern medicine lie with the early uses of medicinal plants, and as civilization has advanced, past researchers have been able to isolate and purify the different components of these medicinal substances. Willow bark was discovered to be a fever reducer long ago, a while later its active compounds were found to be water-soluble and could be extracted as a tea. Finally, the active ingredient, salicin, was isolated and conjugated with an acetyl group to form Aspirin, which caused less stomach upset than the pure form. This same process of discovery is still proceeding today with many plants and compounds, including a common weed found across the Americas.

The Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius), has been recently investigated after centuries of use by indigenous peoples for a plethora of medical uses. An important species for ground cover, flood control, and occasionally for a spice called "pink pepper" (note that this plant is not in the genus Piper and therefore is not related to the pepper plant), the Brazilian pepper tree is an abundant (and often invasive) species in the US and Canada.

Of interest to researchers is a component, not yet fully isolated of the plant's extract, which contains around 27 separate chemicals. One or more of these chemicals seem to inhibit the ability of MRSA bacteria to communicate with one another, thus preventing biofilms from forming as well as the mass secretion of the bacteriotoxins that make these illnesses so deadly. This ability of bacteria to communicate is called "quorum sensing," and more specifically, involves the coordinated expression of the most beneficial genes for a given environment, which in the case of MRSA, is the accessory gene regulator (agr) complex. Quenching of this type of allele prevents the bacteria from expressing harmful genes including toxins and antibiotic resistance factors.

What's more interesting is what the extracts didn’t harm – the natural bacterial flora of the skin and digestive tract, as well as any of the human and mouse tissue cells. Given the emerging knowledge of how important our internal microbiomes are, and the consequences for disrupting them, this discovery could be a massive step forward for patient care outcomes, and support existing antibiotics that are becoming less effective.

Sources:
Muhs, A., Lyles, J., Parlet, C., Nelson, K., Kavanaugh, J., Horswill, A., and Quave, C. (2017). Virulence Inhibitors from Brazilian Peppertree Block Quorum Sensing and Abate Dermonecrosis in Skin Infection Models. Retrieved 27 November 2017, from https://www.nature.com/articles/srep42275

National Geographic. (2017). Superbugs, Meet Your Worst Nightmare: This Pepper Tree. Nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved 27 November 2017, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/09/explore-health-brazilian-pepper-tree/

Sun, L., and Sun, L. (2017). Common weed could help fight deadly superbug, study finds. Washington Post. Retrieved 27 November 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2017/02/10/common-weed-could-help-fight-deadly-superbug-study-finds/#pt0-293591

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