Adorable Tasmanian Devils Could Help Fight Superbugs

Special compounds in their milk work like antibiotics.

<a href="http://www.istockphoto.com/photo/watchful-devil-gm152130740-14397746?st=_p_tasmanian%20devil">Redzaal</a>/iStock

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


Even though they’re cute, Tasmanian devils really do exhibit somewhat diabolical behavior. Turns out, these kitty-sized marsupials might just be fierce enough to stare down one of the nastiest health crises facing humanity: the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, which kill 700,000 people per year globally and about 23,000 people in the United States.

No, ERs and doctor’s offices won’t keep a pet devil around to bare its fangs at samples of hard-to-treat E. coli. What physicians may someday do is treat patients with antibiotics derived from compounds found in devil milk. Vice‘s Kaleigh Rogers puts it like this:

Tiny devil babies are born after just 30 days of gestation, and their immune systems are not fully developed. They continue to grow from the safety of their mother’s pouch, but that doesn’t protect them from potentially dangerous bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Instead, the babies build up immunity partly through drinking their mother’s milk, which is full of cathelicidins—small compounds of amino acids that work like natural antibiotics.

For a recently published paper, scientists at the University of Sydney isolated the cathelicidins and sicced them on a range of resistant bacteria—and two of them worked. They also found that like many existing antibiotics, cathelicidins are toxic to humans in high amounts, but safe at medicinal doses.

The findings, while promising, don’t point to a solution for the resistance threat. For one thing, the compounds need to be tested further and approved by regulatory agencies, and pharmaceutical companies need to figure out how to produce them at scale at a viable cost. Ever tried to milk a Tasmanian devil? Actually, the challenge will be figuring out to economically synthesize large amounts of those cathelicidins.

More broadly, we desperately need new drugs to treat resistant pathogens; but microbes evolve and swap genes rapidly, and they’ll eventually outfox even these Tasmanian devil compounds if we continue overusing antibiotics in human medicine and on farms

WE'LL BE BLUNT:

We need to start raising significantly more in donations from our online community of readers, especially from those who read Mother Jones regularly but have never decided to pitch in because you figured others always will. We also need long-time and new donors, everyone, to keep showing up for us.

In "It's Not a Crisis. This Is the New Normal," we explain, as matter-of-factly as we can, what exactly our finances look like, how brutal it is to sustain quality journalism right now, what makes Mother Jones different than most of the news out there, and why support from readers is the only thing that keeps us going. Despite the challenges, we're optimistic we can increase the share of online readers who decide to donate—starting with hitting an ambitious $300,000 goal in just three weeks to make sure we can finish our fiscal year break-even in the coming months.

Please learn more about how Mother Jones works and our 47-year history of doing nonprofit journalism that you don't find elsewhere—and help us do it with a donation if you can. We've already cut expenses and hitting our online goal is critical right now.

payment methods

WE'LL BE BLUNT

We need to start raising significantly more in donations from our online community of readers, especially from those who read Mother Jones regularly but have never decided to pitch in because you figured others always will. We also need long-time and new donors, everyone, to keep showing up for us.

In "It's Not a Crisis. This Is the New Normal," we explain, as matter-of-factly as we can, what exactly our finances look like, how brutal it is to sustain quality journalism right now, what makes Mother Jones different than most of the news out there, and why support from readers is the only thing that keeps us going. Despite the challenges, we're optimistic we can increase the share of online readers who decide to donate—starting with hitting an ambitious $300,000 goal in just three weeks to make sure we can finish our fiscal year break-even in the coming months.

Please learn more about how Mother Jones works and our 47-year history of doing nonprofit journalism that you don't find elsewhere—and help us do it with a donation if you can. We've already cut expenses and hitting our online goal is critical right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate