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David Bradley ISSUE #73
April 2008
Gator Aid

It's perhaps not the first place you would think to search for superbug-beating antibiotics, but alligator's blood could be a great source of novel compounds that could defeat strains of bacteria resistant to conventional antibiotics.

Biochemist Mark Merchant of McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, has investigated a range of proteins found in gator blood that might one day be used to fight serious infections associated with diabetic ulcers, severe burns, and so-called superbugs, such as multiple-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) as well as fungal infections such as Candida albicans.

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"We're very excited about the potential of these alligator blood proteins?which might be called alligacins?as both antibacterial and antifungal agents," explains Merchant. "There's a real possibility that you could be treated with an alligator blood product one day."

Previously, Merchant and his colleagues have demonstrated that alligators have an unusually strong immune system that is very different from that of humans. Alligators can fight microorganisms such as fungi, viruses, and bacteria without prior exposure to these pathogens. This evolutionary adaptation means wounds heal very quickly in alligators, which is crucial to surviving fierce territorial battles, and could help explain why these creatures have lasted across millions of years.

Medical help courtesy of the crocs (Courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Merchant worked with Kermit Murray and Lancia Darville, both of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, to collect blood samples from American alligators. They then isolated disease-fighting white blood cells (leucocytes) and extracted the active proteins from those cells. In laboratory tests, tiny amounts of these protein extracts were found to kill a wide range of microbes, including MRSA and six of eight different strains of C albicans.

Earlier studies had also hinted that these blood proteins could help combat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS. The scientists are now working to identify which proteins are the most effective killers and which aspects of their structure are responsible for their antimicrobial activity.