Saturday 4 September 2010

Health benefits of beer: early Holocene edition

Beer was a way of getting tetracycline 2000 years ago.
Chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Sudanese Nubians who lived nearly 2000 years ago shows they were ingesting the antibiotic tetracycline on a regular basis, likely from a special brew of beer. The find is the strongest yet that antibiotics were previously discovered by humans before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. “I’m going to ask Alexander Fleming to hand back his Nobel Prize,” joked chemist Mark Nelson, who works on developing new tetracyclines at Paratek Pharmaceuticals and is lead author of the paper published June in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Nelson found large amounts of tetracycline in the bones tested from the ancient population, which lived in the Nubian kingdom (present day Sudan) between 250 A.D. and 550 A.D. and left no written record. “The bones of these ancient people were saturated with tetracycline, showing that they had been taking it for a long time,” Nelson said in a press release August 30. “I’m convinced that they had the science of fermentation under control and were purposely producing the drug.” “This discovery will provide a whole new framework for understanding the relationship between microbes and antibiotics,” said anthropologist Dennis Van Gerven of University of Colorado at Boulder. “There might have been other populations that were also doing the same thing, anywhere that there were these microbes. This is going to drive other scientists to start this search, and that is incredibly important.”
Being able to metabolize alcohol well would have had strong survival advantages if drinking it gave you access to a pretty powerful antibiotic in addition to making potable otherwise risky water.

We may well be evolutionarily adapted to run an ethanol blend. Yeah, most of our evolutionary adaptation was to the Pleistocene. But there's decent evidence of strong selection pressures in the early to mid Holocene - we apparently developed lactose tolerance with pastoral agriculture 7500 years ago. Some hard selection pressures were in place for folks who could digest milk. I don't think we can rule out similar pressures for alcohol with the rise of agriculture.

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