The milk of nature’s weirdest animal could be a literal lifesaver

15 Mar 2018

The milk of a platypus contains a never-before-seen protein that could help us fight antibiotic resistance. Image: John Carnemolla/Shutterstock

Platypus milk could help in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

The idea of the existence of a duck-billed, egg-laying, beaver-tailed and venomous mammal was thought laughable by the English colonisers of Australia hundreds of years ago, but the platypus is now an iconic animal for its uniqueness.

Now, the creature could prove to be so much more than just an evolution oddity, with its milk possibly holding the key to overcoming antibiotic resistance.

Future Human

Back in 2010, platypus milk was found to contain antibiotic properties, and new research conducted in its native Australia has helped to solve the puzzle of why it is so potent and potentially lifesaving.

The discovery was made by replicating a special protein contained in platypus milk in a laboratory setting at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

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.

This, the team believes, is why the platypus milk contains protein with rather unusual and protective antibacterial characteristics.

After successfully replicating the protein in the lab, the team was able to see a unique, never-before-seen 3D fold.

The ‘Shirley Temple’ protein behind this latest platypus discovery. Image: CSIRO

‘Shirley Temple’ protein

Because of its ringlet-like formation, the team decided to name it ‘Shirley Temple’ after the child actor’s distinctive curly hair.

From a scientific perspective, its existence teaches us a lot about protein structure.

It could prove crucial to informing other drug discovery work, particularly within developments of new antibiotics that have been so few and far between for the past 70 years.

“Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry,” said CSIRO scientist and lead author on the research published in Structural Biology Communications, Dr Janet Newman.

“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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic