Magic milk: fighting infections with a clue from the echidna

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Scientists at the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research – Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB) here have isolated an anti-microbial protein found in the milk of an egg-laying mammal. The protein promises to serve as an alternative to antibiotics used on livestock.

Echidnas, also known as spiny anteaters unique egg-laying mammals found only in Australia and New Guinea.

Their young hatch from eggs at a very early stage of development and depend completely on mother’s milk. But the mammary glands of the echidnas are devoid of nipples, forcing the young ones to lick milk from the mother’s body surface and potentially making them vulnerable to micro-organisms.

However, nature protects its own. The milk of the echidna has a protein that can puncture the cell membranes of multiple bacterial species, thus destroying the source of infection. Scientist Satish Kumar from the research team said that there are ways to produce the protein in large quantities using E. coli. It can then be used to fight infections.

The scientist pointed out that there is a rise of superbugs due to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics by the animal husbandry industry to raise livestock.

The superbugs can cause mastitis, an infection of the mammary gland, in dairy animals.

Dr. Kumar’s team has been able to show that the protein from echidna milk is effective against mastitis-causing bacteria.

The research was published in Biochimica et Biophysica Acta – Biomembranes, said CSIR-CCMB director Rakesh Mishra. “These studies give us novel approaches to fighting infectious diseases taking clues from nature. They are the best way forward in this emerging scenario of increased infectious disease burden and resistance to current treatments,” he said.

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