by Michelle Longo, Associate Editor
Every Thursday, Laboratory Equipment will be featuring a Scientist of the Week, chosen from the science industry’s latest headlines. This week’s scientist is George Armelagoes from Emory Univ. Armelagoes, an expert in prehistoric diets, and his team found evidence of tetracycline, or antibiotics, in human bones that date more than 2,000 years old. His theory: it was in the beer.
Q: What made you become interested in prehistoric diets?
A: As a paleontologist in 1964, I started looking at diet and disease in prehistory. We actually found evidence of iron-deficiency anemia. When we did that research, I realized I also had to look at modern aspects of the diet. I went on to write a book about modern food habits, but we just kept coming back to issues of disease and diet in prehistory.
Q: Why did you specifically research the origin of antibiotics?
A: It was actually a serendipitous finding. I found tetracycline in human bones years earlier, and then one of my students researched the topic again. We were then able to tie it to grain. We spent almost 10 years trying to deal with people who discredited it. Our study was the first definitive finding that shows tetracycline. We knew it all along, but this puts the “froth on the beer.”
Q: What was the most surprising area of your research?
A: Did the Nubians know what they discovered? Probably not. But they knew that whatever they were doing was making them feel better.
I thought initially the ancient Nubians were eating contaminated grains and the tetracycline was coming from that. But when we started looking at the amount individuals were getting and the overall amount in the population, we had to look at other sources. We started to look accounts of Egyptian populations and how they used grains- baking, eating and beer were all in one breathe. This led us to figure out the tetracycline was from the beer.
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