Brazilian Red Berries Can Fight Bacterial Skin Infections

Red berries of the Brazilian peppertree can help combat harmful bacteria, says a new study published in Scientific Reports.

Brazilian peppertree red berries. Photo credits: Emory University.

The red berries from Brazilian peppertree, Schinus terebinthifolius, have been used by indigenous healers from Latin America for hundreds of years. They have now been found to contain a compound that can neutralise a dangerous bacterial species called MRSA which is known to cause lesions on the skin, and serious infections that can be fatal. The researchers behind the discovery, a team from Emory University, say that an extract of this fruit can prevent infected mice from developing these lesions.

MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is resistant against methicillin and many other antibiotics. It claims thousands of lives every year. The new study, therefore, brings hope to the world of medicine. These findings were made after the researchers delved into the science behind ancient Amazonian healing practices. As part of an endeavour to identify potential drug components, the team led by  ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, found the secret behind how traditional healers from the Amazon were able to treat skin and soft tissue infections using the Brazilian peppertree for centuries.

Quave and her team extracted a mixture of 27 chemical constituents of the red berries, and tested its effects on pathogenic bacteria. Their findings show that the extract (named 430D-F5) counters the bacterial action by inhibiting a gene the microorganisms use to communicate with each other; mice infected with MRSA which received the 430D-F5 treatment did not develop the skin lesions, while untreated mice did have the sores.

So, the bacteria are not killed, but their signalling system, known as quorum sensing, is shut down by the extract 430D-F5—a process called quorum quenching. Quave explains that MRSA is disarmed as, without communication, they are tricked into thinking that they are alone, and hence they do not excrete weapon-toxins that cause damage to tissues of the host. This allows the immune system of the latter to heal the wound. Otherwise, the behaviour of the MRSA would have been different if they could communicate and know that they were not alone inside the host.

Another good news is that the extract did not show any harmful effect on the mice: neither their skin tissues nor their own healthy skin bacteria suffered from the treatment.

Quave and her team are hopeful that their findings can pave the way to treating bacterial infections in humans. So, more research is needed, and the authors warn the public against using these findings to justify using the berries to make home-made skin remedies. Quave says that years of testing are required before we can ascertain whether this can be safely used.

“I don’t want people to go out and try putting random berries on their skin,” says Quave in a statement to NBC News.
“Natural is not always safe. There are lots of things in the natural world that can harm you if you use them improperly.”

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