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June 18, 2021

Can platypus milk save lives?

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A breakthrough by Australian scientists has brought the introduction of an unlikely hero in the global fight against antibiotic resistance a step closer; the humble platypus.

Owing to its unique features – duck-billed, egg-laying, beaver-tailed and venomous – the platypus has long exerted a powerful appeal to scientists.

In 2010 scientists discovered that platypus milk contained unique antibacterial properties that could be used to fight superbugs.

Now a team of researchers at CSIRO working with Deakin University have solved a puzzle that helps explain why platypus milk is so potent.

The discovery was made by replicating a special protein contained in platypus milk in a laboratory setting.

‘Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry,’ said Dr Janet Newman, CSIRO scientist and lead author.

‘The platypus belongs to the monotreme family. 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.’

As platypus don’t have teats, they express milk onto their belly for the young to suckle, exposing the mother’s highly nutritious milk to the environment, leaving babies susceptible to the perils of bacteria.

Deakin University’s Dr Julie Sharp said researchers believed this was why the platypus milk contained a protein with rather unusual and protective antibacterial characteristics.

The Shirley Temple protein – this is the first time a protein structure with such a fold has found, highlighting some of the unusual evolutionary characteristics of monotremes and identifying them as a source of novel proteins.

‘We were interested to examine the protein’s structure and characteristics to find out exactly what part of the protein was doing what,’ she said.

Employing the Synchrotron, and CSIRO’s state-of-the-art Collaborative Crystallisation Centre (C3), the team successfully made the protein, then deciphered its structure to get a better look at it. What they found was a unique, never-before-seen 3D fold.

Due to its ringlet-like formation, the researchers have dubbed the newly discovered protein fold the ‘Shirley Temple’, in tribute to the former child-actor’s distinctive curly hair.

‘Although we’ve identified this highly unusual protein as only existing in monotremes, this discovery increases our knowledge of protein structures,’ Dr Newman said. 

In 2014 the World Health Organization highlighted the scale of the global threat posed by antibiotic resistance, pleading for urgent action to avoid a ‘post-antibiotic era’, where common infections and minor injuries that have been treatable for decades can once again kill.

[Photos]


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