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Baby Tasmanian Devils Have Given Us a Potential Treatment for Superbugs

Because devil babies are born so young, their mother’s milk is spiked with powerful antibiotics.
Image: Wikipedia

Scientists are willing to look anywhere for a solution to the global threat of antibiotic resistance, including in the pouch of a Tasmanian devil.

Australian researchers recently discovered that the mother devil's milk is spiked with powerful natural antibiotics that are effective against even the most drug-resistant strains of some pathogens, raising the potential for a new treatment option.

"There are potential pathogens present in the devil microbiome, so the fact that the under-developed young in the pouch don't get sick was a clue something interesting was going on," Emma Peel, the lead author of the paper published on these findings and a PhD student at the University of Sydney, told the Sydney Morning Herald.. "That's what inspired our most recent study."


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.

Peel and her team combed through the devil genome, which was fully mapped in 2012, to identify these cathelicidins. They found six, and tested them against a handful of known superbugs: bacteria that have developed resistance to most antibiotics, including our more harsh "last resort" drugs like colistin. Two of the six were were able to kill off a broad range of bacteria, including the drug-resistant, potentially deadly pathogen MRSA, according to the paper published in Scientific Reports. They were also effective against some infectious fungi, such as Candida, which causes skin infections.

The researchers also tested the toxicity of these cathelicidins—sometimes peptides from other animals are too toxic to even be considered for treatment in humans—and found that while they were toxic to mammalian cells at certain level, it was much higher than what would be needed to kill off the pathogens. This means there's a potential for developing new drugs using the devil cathelicidins.

Antibiotic resistance is a major threat to public health: as it becomes more widespread, there's a very real risk we could find ourselves in a post-antibiotic future, which would make things like surgery too dangerous to undertake, and even a scraped knee could be deadly.

While the Tasmanian devil findings are promising, it's important to remember that new kinds of antibiotics are only part of the solution. Eventually, bacteria will always evolve to develop resistance to whatever antibiotics we find. To truly protect ourselves, we need to continue to prioritize curbing our use of antibiotics to prevent overuse that leads to faster resistance, and keep looking for other kinds of treatments—like bacteriophages—to bolster our fight against superbugs.

It's nice to know there may be some special ingredients in marsupial milk to buy us some extra time, though.