Sloth Fur May Help Fight Against Malaria And Cancer

Nature’s laziest animal could offer hope for a future without antibiotics

Even though antibiotics continue to get stronger, bacteria always seems to be one step ahead. In their search for the next generation of medicine, scientists have gone digging in the jungle. What they found was a fungi that lives in the fur of a sloth which is resistant to parasites that cause malaria, human breast cancer cells, and a range of other pathogenic bacteria. The samples were collected from nine different sloths who live in Panama’s Soberanía National Park, and could offer some hope in an antibiotic-resistant future.

Sloths have two layers of fur: An inner layer that helps to keep the sloth warm, and a thick outer layer where various organisms live. One of these is a green algae that gives the sloth’s fur a green tint, and helps it to camouflage amongst the leaves of the rainforest. By the time they were done, scientists had managed to collect a total of 84 different species of fungus from the sloths living in the national park.

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Of the fungi collected, three species were shown to be effective against a strain of human breast cancer that is often used in biomedical research. Two of the fungi were also effective against the parasite that causes malaria, while another eight responded well to a parasite that causes the tropical Chagas disease.

It’s worth noting that these fungi were proven to be effective in a petri dish under controlled laboratory conditions. These same conditions also make it easy to kill diseases with fairly primitive methods such as bleach, ammonia, and fire. That doesn’t mean they won’t work in the real world, just that more testing is required to figure out just how tough these fungi really are.

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All of the fungi collected for this experiment came from the three-toed sloth, which also means there are five other species of sloth that could be harbouring medicinal fungi. The paper was submitted by lead author Sarah Higginbotham of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and was published in PLOS One.

[h/t] Inhabitat, IFL Science

Images by PNNL, Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Alan Wolf

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