As bacteria becomes increasingly resistant to antibiotics, so do many struggles arise when it comes to fighting disease. It is very easy to take for granted that we can care for a small infection with the help of some antibiotics. However, without these antibiotics, a small infection could potentially land you in the grave. Researchers are looking for new methods that can be used to fight bacteria, and they might have just found such a thing located in a rather unusual place, the fur of the sloth.
Sloths are known across the world for their lazy behaviour, which even extends to grooming. This trait would make them particularly vulnerable to molds and parasites, if it weren’t apparently for their hair.
Scientists have been turning to the jungles of Panama, for a long time now, searching for cures and medicines because these jungles contain a vast myriad of life forms, from tiny microbes to bears and all those in between. Among all of these various lifeforms is the sloth, whose fur has its own little ecosystem entirely. When researchers started to examine what lives on sloths they found that within the fur of the sloths is a fungi that can actually resist parasites that cause malaria, some cancers, and a number of other pathogenic bacteria. The study was published in PLOS One this year, and stems from research performed at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
Sloths are known for having very thick fur, which hosts a number of different organisms and insects. Sloth fur consists of two different layers, the inner layer is short, fine, and helps keep the sloth warm. The thick outer layer is where many of the organisms live. There is green algae which grows in the cracks of the hair and lives harmoniously with the sloth. The algae benefits from having a nice place to grow, and the sloth benefits by having a green tint in its fur, giving them the ability to camouflage among leaves in the jungle.
The researchers of the study collected 84 species of fungus that live in the coarse fur of the sloth. These samples came from 9 different sloths who live in Soberania National Park in Panama. When the fungi were identified, there were 28 operational taxonomic units found by the team, and represented in the study. Out of all the fungi collected, 74 of them were cultured and administered in vitro testing to find biological activity against diseases.
Three of these fungi species were demonstrated to be effective against the human breast cancer strain MCF-7, which has the longest life of any breast cancer strain and is often the subject of biomedical research. Eight of the fungi had high levels of bioactivity against the parasite associated with Chagas disease. There was also a single species of fungus which was active against Staph infection, or Staphylococcus aureus, which takes thousands of lives every year.
It seems that the laziness of the sloth is possible due to its symbiotic relationship with fungi, which protect it from parasites, disease, and prevent colonization by other fungi as well. These findings may have many applications in the biomedical field and even consumer spheres.