Can plants solve the antibiotics crisis?

Does ethnobotany have the solution to antibiotic resistant superbugs?
28 September 2021



We constantly hear about, especially my job as a microbiologist, of the dangers of anti-microbial resistant superbugs. Can your field in plant ethnobotany and medicine, natural remedies, do anything to help us in this area?


Ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave told Chris Smith about the role plants have to play...

Cassandra - I mean, we have a couple of problems that's really spurring antibiotic resistance. One of them is misuse of our existing antibiotics, not only with regards to overuse in the clinic but also massive use in agriculture. So we need to work on that. We need to work on also the economic models for developing antibiotics. But the main problem that we're focused on is really helping to fill that pipeline. We need new molecules, but we also need new approaches to dealing with infection. And this is where traditional medicine I think can really provide some important clues because even in our own work, we found that healers don't always treat an infection with plant products that kill bacteria. But a good example of this is our work on pepper tree and on chestnut. These are used to treat wounds, but they don't have growth inhibitory effects against the bacteria. Instead they shut down the ability of bacteria to cause harm. So I think from my perspective, yes, plants have a lot to offer in terms of novel chemistries. And they may actually open the doors to new ways of dealing with these infections.

Chris - That's very interesting. So rather than just kill them outright, you just basically render them a bit impotent so that the bacteria much less able to cause disease giving the body a helping hand?

Cassandra - Exactly. I like to liken it to, you know, taking the teeth out of the dog's bite, right? The dog is still there. He may gnaw on your arm, but I couldn't do much damage

Chris - That just licks you to death, which my dog seems to do. Fantastic.


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