A protein present in the milk of the platypus can potentially save thousands of lives by effectively killing superbugs that have become increasingly resistant to antibiotic drugs, researchers say.
Due to its unique features — duck-billed, egg-laying, beaver-tailed and venomous, the platypus has long exerted a powerful appeal to scientists, making it an important subject in the study of evolutionary biology.
“Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry,” said lead author Janet Newman, a researcher at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.
“The platypus belongs to the monotreme family, a small group of mammals that lay eggs and produce milk to feed their young. 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,” Newman added.
As platypus do not have teats, they express milk onto their belly for the young to suckle, exposing the mother’s highly nutritious milk to the environment and leaving babies susceptible to the perils of bacteria.
Researchers believed that this might be the reason why the platypus milk contained a protein with rather unusual and protective anti-bacterial characteristics.
The discovery, detailed in the journal Structural Biology Communications, was made by replicating a special protein contained in platypus milk in a laboratory setting.
The results showed a unique 3-D fold with the ringlet-like formation, dubbed as the “Shirley Temple”.
“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,” Newman said.
Antibiotic resistance has posed a global threat that requires action across all government sectors and society, according to the World Health Organisation.
The health body pleads for urgent action to avoid a “post-antibiotic era”, where common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.