Scientists believe they’ve found an unlikely hero in the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria, or superbugs.
According to new research published in the journal Structural Biology Communications, milk from the platypus may hold the answers.
Molecular biologists at Australia's national science agency and Deakin University in Victoria isolated the platypus' monotreme lactation protein structure for the first time and identified a bizarre three-dimensional fold that could potentially lead to the development of new antibiotics.
The scientists were following up on 2010 research, which showed that the animal's milk contained a lactation protein with powerful antibacterial properties and dubbed the unique form "Shirley Temple" due to the curl-like appearance of the protein.
"This special component has antibacterial properties against some of the nastier bugs you find in the environment but not against some bacteria found in the guts of the young," Janet Newman, a molecular biologist and the lead author of the study, told The Guardian. "So the hope is that the novel structure, in the best possible world, would eventually lead to a therapeutic that is based on a completely different way of dealing with microbial infections than our current antibiotics," she added.
Although a 2014 article in the academic journal Genome Biology Evolution showed that many mammals' milk contained antibacterial properties, the platypus' milk may be uniquely protective.
Unlike other mammals, which evolved to have teats, platypus express their milk onto their bellies for their young to consume. As a result, the babies are exposed to more pathogens than normal mammals that feed from sterile teats. Scientists believe this caused the platypus to evolve, developing milk that would protect its young from infection.
"Platypuses are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry," Newman said, according to Live Science.
The duck-billed, egg-laying, semi-aquatic mammals also have webbed feet with poisonous spurs. They are considered so unusual that when they were first discovered by Europeans in Australia, many thought they were some kind of strange hoax. Platypus and echidnas are also monotremes, meaning they’re the only known mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live offspring.
However, beyond their unique biological characteristics, the new research suggests platypus may hold the secrets to fighting potential superbugs in the future.
"By taking a closer look at their milk, we've characterized a new protein that has unique antibacterial properties with the potential to save lives," Newman told The Sydney Morning Herald. "This discovery increases our knowledge of protein structures in general.”
Scientists have been raising the alarm about superbugs for several years now. Superbugs are bacteria that were once treatable with antibiotics, but have since grown resistant. In the worst case scenario, superbugs can lead to ineffective treatments, more persistent infection and significant fatalities.