UPDATE: How platypus milk will save lives

AMAZING ANIMAL: The Platypus is one of a small group of mammals that lay eggs and produce milk to feed their young.
AMAZING ANIMAL: The Platypus is one of a small group of mammals that lay eggs and produce milk to feed their young. Laura Romin & Larry Dalton

UPDATE: THE global fight against antibiotic resistance has come across an unlikely hero in one of Australia's most curious creatures - the platypus.

A protein has been discovered in platypus milk that contains unique antibacterial properties that could be harnessed to fight super bugs.

Rural Weekly spoke to CSIRO scientist, Dr Janet Newman, to learn more.

"We believe this protein exists because the monotremes, the platypus and the echidna, feed their young differently,” she said.

"Most animals have milk in a breast or an udder or whatever you want to call it on that animal. Which then gets directly fed to the infant, so it's sterile in the breast and gets transferred directly.

"But the platypus and the echidna make milk and then express it onto a milk pad on the outside of their body where the young then lap it up.

"So it's exposed to the environment. So you can see having this nutritious fluid exposed to the environment might require that it has some protection from bacterial spoilage.”

Dr Newman said platypuses are essentially "out of the picture”, there wouldn't be a need for a platypus dairy of sorts.

"They were used initially to find the protein but now we make the protein in the lab,” she said.

She said she was unsure how a platypus was milked.

"The lactation specialists at Deakin University got the initial milk,” Dr Newman said.

"I believe there are about two people in the world who are able to do this and they would be people at zoos or somewhere like that.

"You don't milk a platypus, you just ask for a sample.”

The researchers at Deakin discovered the protein in platypus milk and then the CSIRO scientists made enough to conduct the further research. One of CSIRO's specialities is making recombinant proteins in the lab.

Dr Newman said it would be years before the public would reap the benefits of the newly discovered protein.

"It's a glimmer rather than a glow in the distance,” she said.

"We have some preliminary data that says this protein knocks out some bacteria. We have also have information on what the protein looks like. Now we just need more resources directed towards how that relationship happens.

"So what we'd like to do is say - what is special about this part of the structure that enables this to happen?

"Because we're making the protein in the lab we can make subtle changes to it and then remake it, and see how the slightly different version behaves.

"If you do that enough times then you build up picture of what each part of the structure is important for.”

Dr Newman said it was a great feeling to have made this discovery and have so many people interested.

"As I scientist you're used to people glazing over when you talk to them,” she said.

"Its nice to have people interested in what you do because we think it's really cool.”

EARLIER: AUSTRALIA'S humble platypus has become the champion of the global fight against antibiotic resistance.

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 - bringing it one step closer to being used to save lives.

The platypus can be found in many of Australia's rural creeks and streams from Tasmania, right up through eastern Australia.

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,” CSIRO scientist, Dr Janet Newman said.

"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.”

The platypus has always been of much interest to scientists due to it's unique features, including it's duck-bill, egg-laying, and venomous tail.

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.

"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 marvels of molecular biology, 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.

Dr Newman said finding the new protein fold was pretty special.

"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,” she said.

Topics:  antibiotics native animals platypus milk superbugs

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