Photo: Ann Batdorf, Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Giant Pandas may be a rich source of powerful new antibiotic drugs, scientists have discovered.Their endangered status and distinctive, cuddly appearance have turned them into the poster-children of wildlife conservation, but now there may be a new reason to save the giant panda from extinction.
Scientists have discovered that the animals, of which there are around 1,600 in the wild, produce a powerful antibiotic in their blood stream that kills bacteria and fungi.
They believe the substance could be used to create potent new treatments against drug-resistant superbugs and other diseases.
The antibiotic is thought to be released by the bear’s immune system to protect them from infections when they are living in the wild. Researchers discovered the compound, known as cathelicidin-AM, after analysing the panda’s DNA.
Fortunately, scientists will not need to depend upon the animal’s notoriously unreliable breeding capacity to harvest the new antibiotic as they have been able to synthesize it artificially in the lab by decoding the genes to produce a small molecule known as a peptide.
Dr Xiuwen Yan, who led the research at the Life Sciences College of Nanjing Agricultural University in China, said: “It showed potential antimicrobial activities against a wide spectrum of microorganisms including bacteria and fungi, both standard and drug-resistant strains.
“Under the pressure of increasing microorganisms with drug resistance against conventional antibiotics, there is urgent need to develop new types of antimicrobial agents.
“Gene-encoded antimicrobial peptides play an important role in innate immunity against noxious microorganisms. They cause much less drug resistance of microbes than conventional antibiotics.”
Pandas have dwindled considerably as their bamboo forest habitat in China and south east Asia has been destroyed. Attempts to increase their numbers have been frustrated by the extreme difficulty in getting them to breed in captivity.
They are notoriously poor at breeding, even in the wild, as the females only come into season once a year.
Despite millions of pounds being spent using expensive artificial breeding techniques, their numbers have increased little, leading to arguments about whether the money could be put to better use on other conservation projects.
But many argue that the black and white bears act as a symbol of the need to save wildlife from extinction and help with fund-raising for conservation projects.
The discovery that they produce powerful compounds that can be used to make new drugs will almost certainly strengthen the case to conserve the endangered creatures.
The Chinese researchers found that the cathelicidin-AM, which is produced by immune cells in the animal’s blood, was found to kill bacteria in less than an hour while other well-known antibiotics took more than six hours.
They hope to develop the substance either as a new drug to tackle superbugs or as an antiseptic for cleaning surfaces and utensils. Dr Yan and his colleagues also believe there may be other potential drugs hidden within the panda genome.
They have also found other powerful antimicrobial compounds in the mucus produced by snails and in some amphibians.
Dr Yan said: Antimicrobial peptides are important components in innate immunity – they can provide an effective and fast-acting defence against harmful microorganisms.
“More than 1,000 antimicrobial peptides have been found from animals, plants, and microorganisms. Analysis revealed that the panda cathelicidin had the nearest evolutionary relationship with dog cathelicidin.”
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.