Driving home a couple of evenings ago I was astonished to hear the Tasmanian Devil mentioned on the 6pm news on Radio 4. Devil milk, it seems, has extraordinary antibiotic properties that could ultimately save the world from superbugs like MRSA.
PHOTO CREDIT: By Wayne McLean ( jgritz) Taken with Nikon D100. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The explanation is fairly simple, although a tad revolting. Devils are of course marsupials, meaning that the young spend several months in mum’s pouch before leaving home to spend their days beating up the local wildlife. Rather like a teenager who never cleans his room or changes his underpants, the infant’s existence in the pouch is somewhat squalid. The chance of infection is ever-present, and to survive Devils have become masters of disease resistance. If the mother did not pass on through her milk her own immunity to infection junior’s chances of survival would be pretty slender and the Devil species itself could be on the road to hell.
Scientists tell us that Tasmanian Devil milk contains several types of peptides called cathelicidins, a natural kind of antibiotic. When exposed to these peptides drug resistant bacteria, including MRSA, have keeled over and died. The search is now underway to better understand just what’s going on, with a view to developing new treatments that could save millions of lives. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but diligent and painstaking research will no doubt be the key … clearly, the detail’s in the Devil.
This is a great piece of news, with humanity gaining new cures and the Devil new followers. It does however raise an interesting question that had never occurred to me before. Given that it spends several months holed up in its mother’s pouch how, or more pertinently where, does an infant marsupial go to the toilet?
Answers on a postcard please.