Antibiotic Alternatives

December 15th, 2012 BY Hilary Feldman | 1 Comment

Modern society spends a lot of time trying to avoid and combat germs. While viruses remain a continuing challenge, some progress has been made with fighting bacteria. In fact, a wide range of items claim to have antibacterial effects, from household sponges to hand sanitizer. But when it comes down to doing battle with bacterial infections, our existing strategies are faltering. Many bacteria have proven resistant in recent years, no longer succumbing to conventional treatments.

Back in 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and revolutionized medical treatments. Through the last century, more antibiotics have been developed to kill or inhibit bacterial growth. Initially, these discoveries involved describing new classes of compounds from soil bacteria and fungi. Later advances concentrated on derivatives  within the same antibiotic classes. In fact, there have been few new sources and types of antibiotic in the past decade or so.

A new patent is touting a surprising source of antibiotics. Korean scientists from Pusan National University have been testing the effect of muskrat feces on various potent bacteria. To date, Salmonella, E. coli, and Vibrio – linked to food poisoning – as well as infection-causing Staphylococcus aureus have been treated successfully in the lab. The patent proposes that muskrat extracts might be used both to prevent food poisoning and to treat it.

Additionally, in the lab, muskrat droppings have treated plant pathogens such as Rhizoctonia solani, Pythium ultimum, Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, Phytophthora capsici and Fusarium oxysporum. The extract has also killed termites, mites, and other acarids, potentially providing a nontoxic and environmentally friendly source of pest control.

Muskrats are nocturnal rodents in the Family Muridae, with thick glossy pelts like their beaver cousin. Originally found in North America, muskrats were introduced to Europe around 1905. In the past century, they have spread throughout Europe and parts of Asia. They live in wetlands, preferring marshes and lakes with abundant vegetation. Muskrats feed on aquatic plants like cattails, water lilies, grasses, and bulrushes, as well as occasionally eating shellfish and carrion. They are named after their smelly secretions, made by males in special anal glands. A single male produces about 5-8 grams of musk annually, with greater amounts made in the breeding season.

Muskrat feces are collected and then dried thoroughly. Organic solvents – ethyl acetate, ethanol, dichloromethane, acetone, and chloroform – are used to extract the active compounds. Each technique and solvent combination leads to a different extract. These extracts can be used separately or in conjunction for different treatments (e.g. pest control, plant pathogen treatment, antibiotic).  However, much more testing is necessary to ascertain side effects, safety, and possible hazards to humans.

Photo credit: Kent Nickell

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