Although platypuses are deeply unusual animals, as researchers dig deeper into their biochemistry, it seems that they might hold the key to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic resistance is a topic that sits squarely in the center of medical researchers’ minds; it’s a huge concern. In fact, many scientists consider it to be one of the “world’s most pressing public health problems.”
In a nutshell, antibiotic resistance occurs when a species of bacteria becomes immune to antibiotics. Once bacteria have developed an ambivalence to these drugs, they are able to survive their onslaught and pass antibiotic-resistant genes onto the next generation.
But today, diseases that were once very easily treatable with antibiotics — such as pneumonia and tuberculosis — are becoming life-threatening. The World Health Organization (WHO) pull no punches when they write, “Without urgent action, we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.”
As we use these drugs more and more, an increasing number are becoming ineffective. On this dimly lit and deeply worrying backdrop, the platypus waddles into the spotlight. Can this reclusive, semi-aquatic weirdo lift this sense of impending doom?
The peculiar platypus
The platypus needs no introduction, but I’ll give you one anyway because they’re just so pleasing to consider.
Platypuses are monotremes — that is, a subgroup of mammals that comprises just five species (the platypus and four species of the hedgehog-like echidna). The former is one of the most iconic and baffling animals on the planet.
She’s hairy and warm-blooded, similar to standard mammals, yet she lays eggs. She has a duck-like bill and a beaver-like tail, and she is one of the very few venomous mammals.
The strangeness doesn’t stop there, however; the female has two ovaries — no surprise — but only the left one actually works. Also, baby platypuses are born with teeth, but, at an early age, they all fall out, leaving a horny plate.
So, how on earth could such a natural oddity help to save the human race from the horrors of antibiotic resistance? Well, the answer might lie in its milk.
According to an earlier study, platypus milk contains unique antibacterial properties. The authors report that proteins in their milk “were effective in killing a broad range of bacterial pathogens.”
Investigating platypus milk in detail
Recently, a team of researchers from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) combined forces with Deakin University in Victoria, also in Australia. They wanted to examine the almighty prowess of platypus milk and attempt to understand why it’s so potent. Their results were recently published in the journal Structural Biology Communications.
In the laboratory, the scientists replicated the platypus milk protein responsible for its antibacterial powers and gave it a long, hard inspection. As Dr. Julie Sharp, from Deakin University, states, “We were interested to examine the protein’s structure and characteristics to find out exactly what part of the protein was doing what.”
Recreating a protein in the laboratory sounds, at first reading, to be a relatively simple job — but it’s not. Achieving this feat took the combined might of the Synchrotron, a cyclic particle accelerator, and the CSIRO’s ultra-hi-tech Collaborative Crystallisation Centre.
The magical, bacteria-slaughtering capabilities of the milk protein might come from its unique 3-D folding. The protein has a ringlet-like formation, thus earning it the nickname Shirley Temple. The intriguing format of the protein has not been seen in nature before.
“Platypus[es] are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry.”
Lead study author Dr. Janet Newman
Why is the platypus’s milk so powerful?
The platypus is a conundrum of a creature with miraculous milk. Unlike the vast majority of mammals, the platypus has no nipples (which is yet another reason why platypuses are considered one of planet Earth’s oddest residents). So, without nipples, the mother platypus secretes milk from a patch of skin.
As an aside, baby platypuses — rather boringly — are officially called “baby platypuses.” However, there are more pleasing, if unofficial, names, including puggles and platypups, so feel free to use whichever you deem cutest.
I’ll stick with baby platypuses for the sake of maintaining some degree of scientific integrity. But as I was saying, since there are no teets, the mother’s milk comes into contact with the outside world, and the baby platypus must lick the milk from the surrounding hair.
Of course, this opens the young animals up to an unholy array of bacteria and other nasties. This, perhaps, is the reason that platypus milk needs to be so profoundly antibacterial.
Shirley Temple may open the door to other fields of study, too; Dr. Newman says, “Although we’ve identified this highly unusual protein as only existing in monotremes, this discovery increases our knowledge of protein structures in general and will go on to inform other drug discovery work done at the Centre.”
For now, we will have to wait and see how this new protein might be unleashed in the war against antibiotic resistance. Hopefully, the wait will not be a long one. God bless the platypups!
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Newman, Tim. “Platypus milk: The key to preventing deadly infections?”, MedNewsToday, Wednesday, 21 March 2018