How Platypuses Could Save Us From Superbugs

Australian scientists have found an unlikely ally in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria: the platypus. The Australian animal produces milk that researchers believe may have potential for treating these "superbug" infections.

Platypuses are curious animals, and have confounded scientists before with their large bills and poisonous venom (they are also one of the few egg-laying mammals). Male platypuses produce toxins extruded through a spur in their hind feet powerful enough to incapacitate a human adult, leaving the victim with hyperalgesia, or an extreme sensitivity to pain, sometimes for months.

Female platypuses produce milk that's equally unique — rather than nursing through teats like other mammals, platypuses leach milk through the skin on their bellies. The milk is exposed to the bacteria-ridden surroundings before nourishing the young platypuses.

"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," Dr. Janet Newman, a scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization told Australian Geographic.

Researchers have nicknamed the protein "Shirley Temple." They hope to be able to apply their understanding of this protein to treatment of infections that resist treatment with ordinary antibiotics.

"Although some people are at greater risk than others, no one can completely avoid the risk of antibiotic-resistant infections," says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Infections with resistant organisms are difficult to treat, requiring costly and sometimes toxic alternatives."

The organization adds that "bacteria will inevitably find ways of resisting the antibiotics developed by humans," and that "aggressive action is needed now to keep new resistance from developing and to prevent the resistance that already exists from spreading."

Could a bizarre Australian animal hold the key to ending the global threat of superbugs? Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a bigger risk to populations than even the biggest food poisoning scares.