A compound extracted from maple syrup has been found to weaken bacteria’s defenses against antibiotics, according to a new study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology. The extract could someday reduce the amount of antibiotics necessary to treat certain diseases effectively.

In the last couple decades, scientists and physicians started shying away from using antibiotics as a way to fight bacterial diseases. Overexposure can cause the bacteria to develop an immunity, which renders the medication useless. The new research offers an alternate future of antibiotics: one where the bacteria are weaker from the start and less medicine is needed to eradicate it from the body.

The experiments started simply enough. “We bought some maple syrup from a local market in Montreal, and we brought it back to the lab,” said Dr. Nathalie Tufenkji, senior author and assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at McGill University. Next, she says, the team cut out “a certain fraction of the maple syrup” that was rich in polyphenol compounds, which have been well-established to prevent degenerative diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

In treating several types of bacteria with the extract, including E. coli and Proteus mirabilis (a common cause of urinary tract infection) Tufenkji and her team were met with mild success. But treating those same bacteria with the maple syrup extract in conjunction with the antibiotics, they saw a breakdown in the bacteria’s protective membrane. What’s more, the one-two punch helped eliminate harmful biofilms left behind by the bacteria and also prevent new biofilms from forming. Plaque that forms on your teeth, for example, is a type of biofilm.

Another finding of interest, Tufenkji says, is that the extract acted on the bacteria’s genes that are in charge of establishing its virulence. “The maple syrup extract actually decreases the gene expression of those genes,” she explained. This in turn made the bacteria less infectious.

Tufenkji admits there is a long road ahead before the extract can have any real-world application. First her lab needs to move out of cell models and replicate the results in much larger in vivo studies. And then, once the initial testing validates the principle, they can begin work on clinical trials.

Antibiotics weren’t always a point of concern. For decades they helped doctors treat bacterial infections without much alarm. But through their natural proliferation, so-called bad bacteria started adapting to medicine to the point where they resisted attack. Today, humans transfer these bacteria through daily interaction and ingest them through the animal products we eat. The World Health Organization has stated antibiotic resistance “threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses, and fungi.”

Tufenkji’s research suggests antibiotics could simply use a helping hand in reclaiming their effectiveness, and maple syrup — or at least a part of it — seems to be capable of filling that role.

Source: Maisuria V, Hosseinidoust Z, Tufenkji N. Polyphenolic Extract from Maple Syrup Potentiates Antibiotic Susceptibility and Reduces Biofilm Formation of Pathogenic Bacteria. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 2015.