Scientists find clue to fighting antimicrobial resistance in devil′s mother′s milk | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 18.10.2016
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Scientists find clue to fighting antimicrobial resistance in devil's mother's milk

You may only know the Tasmanian devil as a cartoon character - the one that's out to get the bird. But Australian scientists say the real thing may carry a deadly weapon against dangerous superbugs.

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Tasmanian devil vs. superbug

As its name suggests, the Tasmanian devil hails from the Australian island state of Tasmania. The mammal is the size of a small dog, but has a larger head with one of the strongest bites of any land mammal living today. 

Tasmanian devils hunt prey and scavenge carrion. They can run 13 kilometers per hour, climb trees, swim - and, as it turns out, fight superbugs with their mother's milk.

But first things first.

What is a superbug?

Superbugs are bacteria which cannot be treated with current antibiotics and other drugs. Though these resistant microbes predate antibiotics, they have spread widely since antibiotics became common in human and animal health. A recent study by British scientists suggests superbugs could kill up to 10 million people worldwide by 2050.

How can the Tasmanian devil kill superbugs? 

Scientists at the University of Sydney found that peptides in the Tasmanian devil's mother's milk killed resistant bacteria, including golden staph bacteria and enterococcus. By contrast, methicillin - a subtype of penicillin - and a powerful antibiotic called vancomycin are ineffective against these two bacteria.

What makes the peptides in the mother's milk so special?

Mammals, like the Tassie devil and humans, suckle their offspring with mother's milk - a powerful cocktail full of hormones and natural vaccines that help the young grow up healthy. Humans have just one type of peptide in their mother's milk. But the Tasmanian devil's mother's milk has six bacteria-resistant peptides, the Australian researchers say.

Why do Tasmanian devils have these peptides? 

The Tasmanian devil is a marsupial, a mammal native to Australia. Marsupials carry their young in a pouch after birth. The underdeveloped young have an immature immune system when they are born, yet they survive in their mother's bacteria-filled pouch - with the help of the peptide-rich mother's milk.

How can the devil's milk help humans fight superbugs?

So far the scientists have only extracted the peptide sequence from the Tasmanian devil's milk and artificially created new antimicrobial peptides that killed resistant bacteria. But they are hopeful the marsupial peptides could eventually be used to develop new antibiotics for humans to help fight superbugs.

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