Web Zap*Germs Archive

April 29, 2005

Spicy Korean Kimchi Kills Asian Bird Flu!

Kimchi -- the hot, traditional fermented-cabbage dish of Korea -- has lately been touted as quite the health food. Due to its complex mix of probiotic bacteria, kimchi is credited with improving digestion and fighting cancer. Many Koreans believe their ingestion of kimchi saved their country from SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) when that frightening disease struck southeast Asia a couple of years ago.

Now a South Korean microbiologist, Kang Sa Ouk, has tried kimchi on chickens and found it gave them immunity to avian (bird) flu, which health professionals believe could become an international epidemic. Following are excerpts from the Wall Street Journal [subscription required]:
Dr. Kang used a bacterium extracted from kimchi, Korea's fiery national dish of fermented vegetables, to treat chickens with avian influenza. Eleven of the 13 made a full recovery; those in a control group all died.
"As a scientist, and as a Korean, I feel it is my duty to find a scientific role for kimchi in the world," says the 53-year-old Dr. Kang, adjusting his glasses during an interview in his lab at Seoul National University. [Is there a Scots researcher who loves haggis so dearly as to find a life-saving purpose for that traditional dish?]

The dish "is engineered so that the person making it touches every single piece of what goes into it. That means there are a lot of bacteria," says Dr. Kang. "But kimchi never spoils or rots. To me, that meant that there's a bacteria in kimchi that fights the bad ones."

In rural areas of Korea, people make kimchi the traditional way, filling large clay jars and burying them underground in the winter to ferment. The subterranean chill keeps the jar and the kimchi at a constant temperature, preserving the flavor and crunchiness throughout the winter. [Modern-day Koreans employ specially designed kimchi refrigerators to get that special, non-rotting crunchiness.]

The fermentation is carried out by various micro-organisms present in the raw materials and ingredients used to prepare kimchi. About 200 bacteria have been isolated from kimchi. Dr. Kang has focused on one: Leuconostic kimchii. The bug is a type of lactic bacteria similar to those found in dairy products such as sour cream. It clusters together in colonies that look like clumps of lima beans under a microscope.

Dr. Kang says a fluid culture of the bacterium has proved effective in treating viral diseases in fowl, including bird flu and Newcastle disease. He believes the bacterium prevents the spread of harmful germs by attacking the viruses and boosting the body's immune system.

Experts have been cautious about embracing Dr. Kang's findings, saying more research is needed....
Dr. Kang's kimchi crusade began four years ago. Under constant pressure from the university to deliver a scientific breakthrough, and without adequate funding, he decided to focus on the genome of the bacteria found in kimchi.

One of Dr. Kang's graduate students has come up with another possible use for Leuconostic kimchii, which the student found acted as a preservative. The student is planning to use the bacterium in an antiwrinkle lotion instead of chemical preservatives.

You may wish to visit a site that I believe features everything you want to know about traditional Korean kimchi.


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