Mid Wales

Lichen in Wales could hold key to antibiotics resistance

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Media captionThere are warnings routine operations could become deadly within 20 years if we can not fight infection

An expert says fungi and lichens found on trees in Wales could be the key to new forms of life-saving antibiotics.

Botanist Ray Woods said more research is needed to unlock their potential.

It comes amid warnings routine operations could become deadly within 20 years if we lose the ability to fight infection.

Mr Woods wants screening of lichen in Wales saying their antibiotic priorities could be an "amazing resource".

Lichen can be found on fewer than 50 trees in mid Wales and Mr Woods said more needed to be done to conserve rare species of it.

Fungi, such as tree lungwort, has been found to contain properties that could fight the human form of "mad cow disease".

Mr Woods used to work for the Countryside Council of Wales, now Natural Resources Wales.

He said: "Lichens also contain an amazing wealth of other properties which might have useful antibiotic properties. They're an amazing resource for Wales.

"Wales probably has more lichens per unit area than any other country on Earth.

"A lot of the antibiotics we already use come from fungi. Many of those fungi were the sort of fungi that could be easily grown in a laboratory. We've barely looked at most of the fungi for the presence of new antibiotics and that's going to be the big challenge."

Mr Woods said the government and charities would have to step in to spend "big money" to start screening the lichen in Wales.

'Great unknown kingdom'

He said: "Fungi is the great unknown kingdom of the living world. There are probably more fungi than there are other organisms put together and yet in Wales we have one professional mycologist. Over the years the numbers have dwindled and dwindled."

In March, the UK government's chief medical officer for England professor Dame Sally Davies warned of the danger of growing resistance to antibiotics and it should be treated as seriously as the threat of terrorism.

Mr Woods said almost half the food we eat is dependent on fungi, such as the production of milk and bread.

He said: "And if you need an organ transplant, for example, the one and only chemical that's used to suppress rejection - where did that come from? It came from a fungus."

He said: "At a time when we never needed it more. People will die if we don't find new antibiotics very quickly. And this group of organisms have already produced a lot of antibiotics but we've barely begun to look at whether they've got useful materials in them."

Professor Les Baillie, of Cardiff University's school of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, said nature in Wales was a resource.

"We're trying to find the next wonder drug from what's present in nature," he said.

"I like the idea of there being a plant on a hillside somewhere in Wales which provides a next cure for cancer or MRSA.

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