Scientists from the Victorian Department of Primary Industries (DPI) have discovered the platypus has several naturally occurring anti-microbial proteins which are 10 times more potent than those currently used in medical treatment. They were the first in the world to isolate, synthesize and test a number of platypus proteins.
They discovered several new antimicrobials, which were substances similar to antiseptics that kill bacteria. The scientists believe the discovery could be the breakthrough needed to create a new range of natural medicines and treatments for antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.
Medical research has been struggling to develop new treatments for superbugs which are rapidly developing resistance to both traditional and new medical treatments.
The bizarre appearance of this egg-laying, venomous, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammal baffled European naturalists when they first encountered it, with some considering it an elaborate fraud. It is one of the few venomous mammals; the male Platypus has a spur on the hind foot that delivers a venom capable of causing severe pain to humans. The unique features of the Platypus make it an important subject in the study of evolutionary biology and a recognisable and iconic symbol of Australia; it has appeared as a mascot at national events and is featured on the reverse of the Australian 20 cent coin. The Platypus is the animal emblem of the state of New South Wales.
Until the early 20th century it was hunted for its fur, but it is now protected throughout its range. In the wake of the discovery, it will become all the more prized.
Detailing the findings at the platypus enclosure at Melbourne Zoo today, Victorian Minister for Agriculture Joe Helper said a simultaneous announcement was also made at the BIO 2010 International convention currently being held in Chicago.
"We already know these platypus antimicrobials are ten times more potent in killing bacteria than some of their antimicrobials commonly used with humans," Mr Helper said.
"If we can harness some of this potential we could better protect patients from 'superbugs', meaning they will recover from surgery faster and spend less time in hospital."
Mr Helper said the discovery was remarkable, where the protein-encoding genes of an ancient animal - the platypus ¬- were being used to potentially create natural but highly effective new medicines or treatments.
"The platypus species evolved more than 180 million years ago and still retains a number of even older traits - such as egg laying - that have been passed down from mammal-like reptiles that lived 300 million years ago," he said.
"Over many centuries, platypus have developed a very enhanced natural immunity, which may help their offspring survive a challenging environment while still very young.
"It is the results of many centuries of evolution that scientists are now using to solve problems in a modern world."
Mr Helper said it was early days, but the discovery could be used to combat animal and plant diseases, and potentially treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in humans.
DPI Deputy Secretary Dr Bruce Kefford said the genes analysed by Victorian scientists in conjunction with colleagues at the University of Sydney led to the production of antimicrobial peptides, substances which kill or inhibits the growth of micro organisms such as bacteria.
"DPI scientists are already putting their discovery to work to improve the efficiency of our livestock industry," Dr Kefford said.
"If introduced into the stomachs of cattle, these platypus antimicrobials could improve an animal's digestion of feed and reduce methane production, one of Australia's largest contributors of total greenhouse gas emissions."