Can Platypus Milk Combat Antibiotic Resistance?

Scientists have discovered that the biologically unique platypus carries a special protein in its milk that might help us fight antibiotic resistance.

In 2010 Australian researchers found that platypus milk contains antibacterial properties that could combat antibiotic resistant “superbugs.” Now, Australia’s national research agency — the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – and a team at Deakin University have sought to understand exactly why platypus milk packs such an antibacterial punch.

Strangely enough, it all comes down to platypus teats — or lack thereof.

A “cut-and-paste” species

The platypus is an incredibly unusual animal. The species is a mammal, but it lays eggs. It has a duck bill, but it is not a bird. And it secretes a dangerous venom, but it is not an amphibian or reptile. The platypus is, to put it mildly, an unusual case of evolutionary happenstance.

And due to a lack of teats for offspring to latch onto, a platypus mother must express her milk onto her own belly, where her young can lap it up.

This presents a major several issue, however: Exposing milk to the open air carries a risk of contamination. It makes sense, then, that the platypus would need to evolve properties to keep the milk from spoiling and thereby endangering its young. Researchers analyzed the milk for novel characteristics, and they found a unique fold in the creature’s lactation protein structure.

Scientists have taken to calling this the “Shirley Temple” protein fold, due to its unusual curls. Researchers believe this initial finding could inform how we approach antibiotic resistance — and potentially help us create drugs to combat bacterial infection.

Lead author Janet Newman explained:

Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry. 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.

The hope is that this ringlet-shaped protein could offer novel ways of fighting bacteria that may sidestep our failing antibiotics. In effect, this discovery could help chart a new path that had been hidden — until now.

The Platypus: A Unique Creature Given Too Little Attention

The Australian platypus is an iconic species. Early European researchers actually believed that the creature was an elaborate hoax because it so spectacularly defied what we understood about animal physiology.

It is precisely that unique biology that makes it so culturally valuable to the people of Australia, but also scientifically valuable to the global community. Despite this, the platypus is still in trouble.

In 2016, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species increased the concern level for the species from “Least Concern” to “Near Threatened” due to a number of stress factors that had gone under-recognized.

The platypus was once the subject of large-scale trade hunts, but that practice has largely ended. Nevertheless, Eurasian occupation of Australia and surrounding territories appears to directly correlate with a decline in platypus numbers. And modern threats exist, too.

These include loss of freshwater habitat due to development and human encroachment, as well as loss of key waterways due to dam construction and other alterations. Platypus are also solitary creatures which do not thrive in close contact with others of their kind. Their shrinking habitats could, therefore, have a cumulative stress effect by making their available spaces more crowded.

In addition, research suggests that climate change may present challenges for the platypus. That’s because platypus fur retains heat incredibly well – which is beneficial for freshwater swimming, but could be deadly with rising temperatures.

The enigmatic platypus still holds so many mysteries for us. It cannot be allowed to disappear.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

83 comments

Chad A
Chad Anderson3 months ago

Thank you.

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John B
John B3 months ago

Thanks Steve for sharing the wonderful and interesting information.

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Just Human
Just Human3 months ago

I think we should keep our hands off these amazing creatures. For sure, humans will mess things up worse than ever.

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Linda D
Linda D3 months ago

Very sad for this beautiful unique creature if man is going to exploit them. Bad enough we milk other animals now the endangered platypus? Since the industrial revolution we have been dabbling in chemicals that have upset our immune systems and causing so much disease, now they turn to nature to find the answers. Why not concentrate on getting things back to the way nature intended without chemicals in our food, in the environment in our clothing in our furniture and in our body care products, everything has man made chemicals. LEAVE THE WILDLIFE ALONE! This research is obviously being funded by big pharma.

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Vera Diepen
Vera Diepen3 months ago

Oh goody .. now that we know about this about the Platypus, we can factory farm them and torture them the way we do all sentient beings. Mankind created the problem of antibiotic resistance through factory farming and now the animals get to fix the problem created by those who profit from animal suffering. And so it goes ...

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Ruth S
Ruth S3 months ago

Thanks.

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Steve P
Steve P3 months ago

leave the platypus alone this will put a price on their heads and before you know it EXTINCTION .

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Margaret B
Margaret B4 months ago

I dread to think what the platypus will have to endure at the hands of the researchers. Leave them alone. They are a shy and endangered. LEAVE THEM ALONE!!!

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Shirley S
Shirley S4 months ago

Can we be assured that during this scientific coverage the Platypus is NOT subjected to any cruelty ??????

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Rita Odessa
Rita Odessa4 months ago

Oh it won't disappear humans will now exploit it and keep it alive in a lab to see what can be done with it's bio-chemistry, fudge cake! We are some piece of work. Leave the creatures alone, if antibiotics are becoming an issue that's humans fault, take em when absolutely needed and you won't become resistant.

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