Microbiologist Adam Roberts went digging through men’s beards in search of poop.
Instead, he found a tantalizing suggestion of a breakthrough in the global fight against drug-resistant infections. Which, for a researcher working fervently to help avert the antibiotic apocalypse that the World Health Organization, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Roberts himself believe may be looming, is not a bad trade off.
The research began, as very few good things do, with a fake viral story from the Internet.
If you have a beard or you’re currently kissing someone with a beard, or you simply have an affinity for gross stories about personal hygiene, you may remember the period in the spring when a slew of articles were published with headlines like, “Some beards contain more poo than a toilet shocking study reveals.”
The “study” these stories cited was actually a project carried out by a TV journalist in Albuquerque, N.M., in which she swabbed a handful of men’s beards and then had a microbiologist examine the cultures, explained the Guardian’s Nick Evershed. Among other things, the scientist found “enterics,” bacteria that are often found in the intestine. As bacteria are not the same thing as fecal matter, and it’s not all that uncommon for specific types of bacteria to be present in both the gut and on the skin, this wasn’t really news — but try telling that to someone who’s finally persuaded her editor to let her use the word “poo” in a headline.
Regardless of its scientific merits, the story did pique the interest of Roberts, a microbiologist at University College London who is part of a team of researchers there searching for new antibiotics that could help stave off the growing drug-resistance crisis.
For almost a year now, he has been running a program called “Swab and Send,” which invites ordinary people to submit swab samples from the world around them to be tested for antimicrobial properties. He’s gotten samples from computer keyboards, Egyptian bank notes, the floor of the London Undergound’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 so far isolated 20 promising strains capable of killing bacteria and yeast.
This is important, Roberts said in a phone interview Wednesday, because the overuse and misuse of antibiotics has spurred disease-causing bacteria, such as Staphylococcus and E. coli, to evolve resistance to most of the drugs we prescribe to treat them.
“Humans have used antibiotics pretty indiscriminately since we first discovered them, and we haven’t really found that many,” he said. “We’re relying on the few we have found over and over again, and that’s introduced a massive selection for resistant bacteria.”
Until researchers can find not just a few new types of antibiotic, but dozens or even hundreds, “we’ll just be playing leapfrog” with multi-drug resistant, increasingly deadly strains, he said. In the United States, these “superbugs” are responsible for 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths every year, according to the CDC.
All of this was at the back of Roberts’s mind when he was asked by the BBC to conduct a small study on the “poop in facial hair” theory for its “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor” series. Taking swab samples from 20 men’s beards, he set about sorting through the 100 or so types of bacteria he found.
Fellows with facial hair — and their fans — can breathe a sigh of relief now: Roberts didn’t find any evidence of fecal bacteria in beards.
He wasn’t expecting to find anything more from the study, but since Roberts’s lab is focused on antibiotic resistance, he and his colleagues ran tests on all of the isolates as a matter of course. Each one was placed in a growth medium that had been pre-inoculated with another type of bacteria to see how the two strains interacted.
Amazingly, about 25 percent of beard isolates started killing off the indicator strains.
“They were producing their own antibiotics,” Roberts said.
Granted, the indicator bacteria used to test the samples were relatively weak. He and his colleagues will need to conduct more tests to figure out how exactly the antimicrobial isolates work and whether they’re effective against more-serious multi-drug-resistant strains such as E. coli, MRSA and Candida albicans, which causes yeast infections.
The hope is that the beard bacteria and other isolates from Roberts’s “Swab and Send” project might aid in the development of new antibiotics, an area of science that has stalled since the “golden age” of antibiotic discovery in the 1950s and 1960s. But it’s a long and expensive process. Even if Roberts discovered an entirely new type of antimicrobial tomorrow, it would take at least 10 years and millions of dollars before the drug ended up on the market.
But new antimicrobials would allow doctors to cycle drugs in and out of use over the course of years, removing them from the health system before bacteria became fully resistant and keeping us out of a situation in which every antibiotic available was ineffective against common kinds of infections.
That’s the “serious message behind the bit of fun” Roberts has had with the beard study, he said.
“It’s been dubbed a slow-onset disaster,” he said, comparing antibiotic resistance to global warming. “You can kind of tell it’s happening, but nobody thinks they can do anything about it.”
That’s not true, he insisted. The so-called “antibiotic apocalypse” can be averted if governments, clinicians, drug companies and other stakeholders take action, and if individuals about to pop a pill stop to think twice before they do.
“Every user of antibiotics in the whole world slowly increases the selective pressure [for resistance],” he said. “But every user also has the power to reduce that.”