Belfast Telegraph

'Ancient cure' in Fermanagh soil may lead to antibiotic breakthrough

By Allan Preston

A fabled 'Irish cure' found in Fermanagh soil may have real medicinal value, a microbiologist has claimed.

Dr Gerry Quinn said his research was inspired by his great-uncle, who believed he could cure jaundice by foraging natural ingredients in the mountains.

He said this was part of a wider tradition of Irish healing arts or cures, passed down from generation to generation.

Having pursued scientific research as a career, Dr Quinn decided to test one such cure from grasslands in the townland of Boho, near Enniskillen.

The result was the discovery of bacteria previously unknown to science, which he believes could be valuable in developing a new strain of antibiotics.

He said: "Sadly, there is now a world-wide crisis in antibiotics due to the emergence of bacterial resistance."

As part of an international research team, Dr Quinn has published the findings in the world's leading microbiology journal, Frontiers in Microbiology.

Dr Quinn previously worked with a leading scientist in Wales, who pursued new antibiotics in extreme locations, like deserts and salt plains.

He said: "It is known that streptomyces (the bacteria used to make most antibiotics) can often be found in other extreme environments, like alkaline lakes or even caves.

"I also knew that the Boho area was one of the few alkaline grassland areas in Northern Ireland from another of my previous occupations as a botanist."

The upland bog and alkaline bedrock provide a rich habitat for rare and specialised species of plants.

From relatives, he was also intrigued to learn of an "ancient soil cure" from the area that reputedly healed infections.

The last person with the knowledge to use it, however, was apparently the late Fr James MacGirr, who died, aged 70, in 1815.

Over time, "the sacred clay" became regarded as purely symbolic, with locals suffering from an infection placing it under their pillow for three to four days. "As with a lot of folk medicine, there are prayers to be said whilst using the soil," said Dr Quinn.

"However, there is an additional sanction on the soil's use, that it must be returned to the original site in four to nine days.

"This is probably just as well because the soil may also contain remnants of radon emissions from the limestone and shale."

After cultivating the Boho soil in a lab, Dr Quinn said he was "pleasantly surprised" to discover it contained several streptomyces species which were antibacterial.

"Although not impressively antibiotic at the beginning of our investigations, once we had adjusted the growth conditions... it became surprisingly good at inhibiting the top multi-resistant bacteria on the World Health Organisation (WHO) priority pathogens list."

The DNA sequence was identified as a new species, capable of inhibiting many multi-resistant bacteria.

Dr Quinn concluded: "It goes without saying that without the inspiration of my grand-uncle, I might never have found myself at this point.

"Without an exceedingly long line of Thaumeturgists (a worker of wonders or miracles), we might not have discovered that some of the solutions to a very modern problem may lie in an ancient cure."

An 'ancient cure' in the grasslands of Boho in Co Fermanagh could be the key to finding a new strain of antibiotics.

Increased resistance to bacteria in recent years has prompted fears of a worldwide antibotic crisis.

In the search for a new strain, Dr Gerry Quinn investigated a so-called Irish cure rumoured to have healing properties.

His "hunch" paid off, with the "sacred clay" revealing a new species of bacteria.

The hope now is that it can be developed into medicinal use.

Belfast Telegraph

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