In an incredibly ironic turn of events, the creature of everyone's nightmares and a creeping villain of the James Bond Skyfall movie might actually save us.
The blood of Komodo dragons, the world's largest lizards, has an abundance of antimicrobial peptides. It helps them survive in killer conditions, and according to a research paper published this month in the Journal of Proteome Research, it could help us feeble humans in the fight against antibiotic resistance.
Peptides are basically small proteins, and antimicrobial peptides are basically the body's antibiotics. Without them, we'd all—dogs, cats, dragons, humans—die of infection.
"We were focussing on peptides coming from extreme species," Barney Bishop, a professor at Virginia's George Mason University and the lead author of the paper, told me. The idea was to examine how animals living in inhospitable, bacteria-teeming environments could survive and thrive.
Funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the scientists embarked on a search for better drugs by studying the blood of alligators—who can usually stave off infection even when their tails or limbs get cut off—and Komodo dragons from the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida.
"We chose Komodo dragons because… if you study the saliva of the dragon, you'll see it contains a complex mix of bacteria," Bishop explained. And yet, somehow, the dragons remain unharmed.
Part of the "somehow" is a host of microbial peptides unique to the dragons, called Histone-Derived Antimicrobial Peptides (HDAPs). While researchers have interacted with HDAPs before (Buforin is a popular one, for example), they found dozens of new HDAPs in the dragon blood.
The researchers sequenced the dragon's peptides, analyzing hundreds of thousands of them. Using this sequence, they predicted which were likely to be antimicrobial. They tested eight peptides for the study, but found around 40 others (out of about 100 total) that looked promising.
"We've identified a handful [of dragon peptides] that show an interesting combination of antibacterial properties, and what we call antibiofilm activities," Bishop said. Biofilms are communities of bacteria with increased resistance against antibiotics and can evade the immune system—kind of like dental plaque. Komodo dragon blood can disrupt this biofilm, allowing antibiotics to go to work on the bacteria.
"The peptides may themselves become drugs down the pipe," Bishop said, "Or they could provide models and templates for the development of drugs. This has many potential medical applications."
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