Platypus milk may help us fight antibiotic resistance, scientists say

By Elizabeth Arrigo March 15, 2018
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
The human body is building up a resistance to antibiotics but the platypus may be able to help.

AUSTRALIAN SCIENTISTS have found an unlikely candidate in the fight against global antibiotic resistance; the Australian platypus.

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) has long been a subject of interest to scientists, due to its unusual appearance and venomous nature.

CSIRO scientist Dr Janet Newman explains the interest behind these elusive animals.

“Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry,” Dr Newman said, “The platypus belongs to the monotreme family, a small group of mammals that lay eggs and produce milk to feed their young.”

See more: rare photos of a juvenile platypus

In 2010, scientists discovered unique antibacterial properties in platypus milk, which hinted at the potential for the milk to be used to fight superbugs.

Now, a team of researchers at CSIRO partnered with Deakin University have found why platypus milk is so potent, bringing us one step closer to combatting the human body’s growing antibiotic resistance.

“By taking a closer look at their milk we’ve characterised a new protein that has unique antibacterial properties with the potential to save lives,” said Dr Newman

While platypuses may produce milk, they don’t have the teats to nurse with. Instead, they release milk through their skin onto their bellies for their young to suckle at, exposing their milk to the environment and leaving their offspring at the mercy of bacteria.

Replicating the protein in a laboratory setting, scientists found a unique, never-before-seen 3D fold.

See more: Six of the best places to see a platypus

Scientists have unofficially named this new protein the ‘Shirley Temple’, a nod to the protein’s resemblance to the ringlet hair of the former child actor.

Dr Newman said that the new study will have an impact of medical research more broadly.

“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.”

Adding to the platypus’ ever growing list of medical uses – their venom is currently being researched for potential use in diabetes treatment – this breakthrough highlights the need to further protect and study these unusual creatures.