Friday, September 12, 2008

Wallabies...Not Just A Relative Of The Kangaroo

When people don’t remember history; they are bound to repeat it. This is true in many ways both large and small.

One of the lessons I remember learning in school was how the Spaniards managed to decimate the Indian population of the new world by bringing diseases with them that the native Indians had never been exposed to. Having never been exposed, they had never managed to build up any kind of immunity to them. Simple diseases like the cold and flu made the Spaniards sick; but, killed most of the inhabitants of this brave new world.

We have managed to recreate a similar circumstance today. Due to our love affair with antibiotics, disinfectants, antibacterials, antifungals and any other substance that promises to stop that germ dead in his tracks we have only managed to create superbugs that are immune to our best lines of defense. By constantly exposing them to our chemical warfare (even when we didn’t need to) we have allowed them to grow and adapt and now they are resistant to many of our best weapons.

But wait – I promised you wallabies, didn’t I? And here, it is, A Tammar wallaby to be exact (pic 1). This wallaby is capable of some pretty amazing stuff.

A newborn wallaby (pic 2) is a tiny, bean-shaped creature, called a joey that is barely more than a fetus. It lacks a developed immune system, relying on compounds in its mother's milk to protect it against pathogens. Now a unique antimicrobial has been discovered in wallaby milk that could be used in hospitals to fight deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Apparently, this antimicrobial is 100 times stronger than penicillan.

"A huge amount of development happens in the pouch and during that time they just rely on milk," says Ben Cocks of the Victoria Department of Primary Industries in Melbourne, Australia.

Mr. Cocks has found that the mother's milk contains a molecule that is 100 times more effective against Gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli than the most potent form of penicillin. The molecule, called AGG01, also kills four types of Gram-positive bacteria and one type of fungus. The work was presented at the US Biotechnology Industry Organization 2006 meeting in Chicago.

When born, with a heart; but, no lungs, tammar wallabies (Macropus eugenii) crawl into their mother's pouch, where they latch on to milk-bearing teats for approximately 100 days. During these 100 days, the mother’s milk releases some kind of compound that enables her baby to develop full lung capacity in the pouch. Scientists feel that if this can be isolated and adapted for human use, it could save the lives of thousands of premature babies with lungs that are not fully functional.

AGG01 was probably lost from placental mammals, whose young have their own immune systems, when they split from marsupials.

Biomimicry is about taking notes from the pages of nature’s overly bountiful scrapbook and adapting them for human use. The great concern in the scientific world is that with umpteen species now on a new fast track to extinction, we may be left holding a book, from which many of the vital pages have been torn out.
The last picture in the trio is by Thorsten Milse, who was a category runner-up in the BBC Wildlife Photographer Of The Year 2005. Here's another one of his. I had to add it because it's so amazing.

No comments: