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The Next Penicillin May Come From Sloths

Scientists marvel at what grows on sloth hair

Wikimedia Commons

In January, a team led by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute discovered a new bioactive fungi common to tropical sloths. Researchers identified at least 20 new types of fungi that could develop into antibiotics. Found on the outer coat of three-toed sloths living in Panama's Soberanía National Park, these fungi contain special properties due to the unique relationship among a sloth's own biochemistry, the algae growing on a sloth's hard outer coat, and the chemical diversity of its tropical habitat.

This discovery's importance is heightened by the rise of antibiotic resistant bacterial strains. The Centers for Disease Control estimated in its 2013 threat report that at least 23,000 people died in the United States due to an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria. That number is projected to grow. “If we don’t act now, our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives,” CDC Director Tom Frieden warns

Between 1981 and 2006, almost half of all new medicines were derived from natural products, such as fungi, plants, and animal byproducts. Fungal species are a core target for researchers, as 98 percent of all fungal species have yet to be identified. Initial results from this sloth study are promising as new fungal species may be used to treat Escherichia coli. E. Coli is a concern for hospitals worldwide as it increasingly outwits existing antibiotic treatments. Additionally, these new fungi may have applications beyond antibiotic research. New types of fungi were identified that may help in developing the cure to malaria, Chagas disease, and breast cancer. 

Maybe next time David Attenborough visits Panama, he should say thank you.