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Study: Plant Oils Highly Effective Against Drug-Resistant Bacteria

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Researchers say oils distilled from plants are highly effective against drug-resistant bacterial infections and could prove to be an inexpensive way to combat super-bugs found in hospital settings.

For hundreds of years, different cultures have used so-called essential oils from plants to treat a variety of illnesses from arthritis to skin infections and sore throats.

Now, researchers at the Technological Educational Institute of Ionian Islands in Greece have found that plant oils are a powerful weapon against multi-drug-resistant staphylococcus aureas or MRSA, a bacterium that causes hospital-acquired infections and is dangerous because it frequently does not respond to a range of antibiotics.

Effemia Eriotou is a professor at the Institute in charge of the research project involving plant oils to treat multi-drug-resistant staphylococcus aureas. "We didn't know that essential oils were going to have that a great anti-microbial activity.  And it's really amazing that they are killing all these bacteria and yeasts as well," Eriotou said.

In laboratory experiments, the research group tested a variety of essential oils from eight plants, including thyme, basil, peppermint and cinnamon. Eriotou says they all had some anti-bacterial activity, but essential oil from thyme - a spice frequently used in Mediterranean cooking - killed almost all of the bacterium in a petri dish within an hour.  Almost as effective was cinnamon oil.

Eriotou says researchers tested essential oils against drug-resistant staph after seeing what happens when the spices are added to foods. "They do not have any bacterial growth in those cheese[s], whereas when we tested different cheese types in the lab, we did have bacteria.  When we have those plants in there, we see no harmful bacteria.  And that's how we got started with this whole work," Eriotou said.

Eriotou says scientists don't know why essential oils, particularly oil from thyme, are so effective against drug- resistant staph.  It's possible, according to Eriotou, that the oils are made by plants to protect them from disease.

Eriotou doesn't think the oils in concentrated forms are dangerous to humans, but that's something they want to figure out.

The research on essential oils was presented this week at the Society for General Microbiology meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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