The first scientists to examine a platypus in 1799 dismissed it as a fake made of different animals sewn together. Centuries later, this bizarre Aussie critter continues to confound us. Now, it appears its milk could be our savior in the fight against antibiotic resistance.
Back in 2010, scientists realized that platypus moms produce very special milk. They found that it has unique bacteria-fighting properties that could be used to kill superbugs. Unlike most other mammals, including us, these weird creatures don’t have teats, so their milk is expressed onto their stomachs where their babies lap it up. This exposes it to the bacteria-filled world so bug-fighting properties are pretty useful.
The duck-billed platypus is certainly an oddity in nature. Although it’s a mammal, it doesn’t really follow mammalian rules. It has the bill of a duck, it lays eggs, and it has venomous spurs poking out of its feet. It belongs to an Australian group of animals called monotremes, which also includes the prickly but adorable pointy-nosed echidnas, otherwise known as spiny anteaters. Monotremes certainly wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Pokémon.
But as well as being bizarre and adorable in equal measures, the platypus could help us treat infections at a time when overprescribing antibiotics is a serious threat to humanity.
Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, which include many ailments from a chest infection to life-threatening meningitis. They’re our best defense against bacterial diseases, but recently we’ve encountered a problem. Antibiotics are used so much that ever-evolving bacteria are mutating to be resistant to them, forming nasty superbugs like MRSA. If a serious antibiotic-resistant disease broke out and spread across the world, we’d be in pretty big trouble.
Enter the duck-billed platypus.
To investigate exactly how a platypus’ milk is so potent, a team of researchers from CSIRO took a closer look. They managed to isolate the monotreme lactation protein and analyze its structure, which, like the platypus itself, is totally unique.
"Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry," lead author Dr Janet Newman said in a statement.
“We've characterised a new protein that has unique antibacterial properties with the potential to save lives."
The team’s findings are published in the journal Structural Biology Communications. They replicated the protein in the lab so they could get a good look at it and discovered a strange never-before-seen 3D fold. This is important because the shape of a protein controls its function.
Adding to this story's strangeness, the protein has a ringlet-style structure, so obviously, the researchers decided to call it Shirley Temple, after the child-star’s golden locks.
Excitingly, discovering the unique structure of the “Shirley Temple” protein will help scientists in their quest to find alternatives to antibiotics. Platypuses, we salute you.