It doesn’t beat or expand greatly as we breathe, like the heart or lungs, respectively, so it can be easy to neglect the all-important functions and status of our largest organ – skin. With the responsibility of defending our bodies from foreign organisms, this significant organ has a complicated job. Adding to this biological complexity is the skin microbiome, or the diverse environment of microorganisms that inhabit the skin’s vast and varied surfaces. By exploring the skin microbiome, researchers have discovered bacteria that can naturally produce antibiotics capable of keeping disease-causing germs in check.
Specifically, as published recently in Science Translation Medicine, a team of scientists has identified protective bacteria that secrete two peptides, or short chains of amino acids, that have antimicrobial properties against a potentially harmful species of bacteria found frequently on the skin, known as Staphylococcus aureus. Using the protective bacteria, the team’s research showed that the antimicrobial secretions could target S. aureus without killing other microorganisms - avoiding the key pitfall of other antibiotics. What’s more, through lab and animal tests, the secretions were shown to be able to kill even drug-resistant S. aureus, known as MRSA.
As you can imagine, healthy skin and unhealthy skin have different mixes of bacteria. In this study, researchers investigated skin that had been damaged by what’s known as atopic dermatitis, which is a common form of eczema. It turns out that the areas damaged by this condition are more susceptible to infections, especially from S. aureus, than healthy skin. Seeing an opportunity, the researchers experimented with adding the beneficial bacteria to over-the-counter skin lotions to see if the lotions could be given a therapeutic boost, and eliminate colonies of S. aureus on the skin of atopic dermatitis patients. Patient volunteers used standard lotion on one arm and the supercharged lotion on their other arm to see if the lotion supplemented with the beneficial bacteria would have a noticeable impact on clearing up the S. aureus. The results showed that much of the S. aureus had been killed, if not wiped out completely, in one day by the lotion containing the beneficial bacteria.
This is a significant finding for skin microbiome research, as it suggests that we may be able to treat skin conditions by correcting the balance of bacteria living on the skin. And who knows, with spring around the corner, maybe there’s even a species of bacteria out there that can coax the skin into producing a good sun tan.