Freshly Baked Science

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Milking It

4th June 2018

There was once a time when people would die from a simple bacterial infection which we can now easily cure with the help of antibiotics. Antibiotics are a type of drug which targets the specific activity of bacteria, rather than human cells. They will either stop the bacterial cell growth or kill it entirely, with minimal effect to humans.


Just like humans, no bacteria are the same. When we have a bacterial infection, not all of the bacterial cells will have the same genetic makeup. This means that some bacteria may have genes that help them to survive, even in the presence of antibiotics. The antibiotics we take may not be able to kill or disable these bacteria very easily. This results in the bacteria which are easy to kill being destroyed first, leaving the strongest, most resistant bacteria until last. If you stop taking the antibiotic at this point, these strong bacteria will start to replicate (make copies of itself), leaving you infected with many antibiotic resistant cells.


At the moment we have many antibiotics to choose from, however, the number of effective choices are declining as bacteria grow more and more resistant. This is leading to a fear that the end of our 'antibiotic era' is close and simple bacterial infections will soon become a serious threat again.


Luckily, scientists are working tiresomely to try to prevent this from happening, researching new ways to target the bacteria, without harming human cells. One very recent discovery has some extremely exciting prospects and it involves... platypus milk?! Yes, you heard me right!


It may sound like a very bizarre source, but stick with me on this one! Platypuses are one of the very few animals who belong to the 'monotreme' family. Monotremes are a group of mammals that lay eggs, as well as producing milk to feed their young. Rather than feeding via teats, platypuses release milk onto their bellies. This means that the milk will be exposed to the environment before it is given to the babies, leaving them vulnerable to bacterial infection.


To combat this risk, it has been found that platypus milk contains a protein with highly unusual and protective antimicrobial properties. The protein structure is unique, and has is called the 'Shirley Temple' due to the ringlet folds. Scientists are hoping to study this in much more detail to find out exactly how the protein works and how it can be transferred to human use!


Platypuses are such strange animals, that it isn't all that surprising for them to have strange proteins too! We'd better start looking after these odd animals, as they may be the key to saving us from the end of our antibiotic era!


Can you think of any other strange animals which you think might be interesting to study? Email us at, or tweet us your suggestion @magazinewonk, with the hashtag #milkingit

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