Say “See Ya Later, Alligator” to harmful microbes

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: June 2nd, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

The modern-day dinosaur, the toothy menace hiding in the retention pond, the scaly substrate for purses and shoes. Most of us would rather keep the American alligator at the opposite end of the swimming pool, but researchers from McNeese State University… deep in the heart of the Louisiana bayou… have embraced the crocodilian critter as a potential lifesaver.

Scientists observed that despite a lifetime of bites and scrapes, an alligator’s wounds never become infected, even in their naturally swampy, bacteria-filled habitat. The evolutionary advantage of a super-sized immune system is obvious, but the researchers wanted to know how and why the alligators’ defenses worked so well. They drew blood from alligators and mixed the serum with twenty-three different species of bacteria. The outcome was lopsided: ‘Gators twenty-three, bacteria zero. Some unknown protein molecule in the reptiles’ blood kept the bacteria at bay.

They also found that the alligator immune system worked in a unique way. Whereas humans acquire disease-fighting antibodies by exposure to bacteria, viruses and fungi, alligators are born with an innate immunity to ward off harmful microbes. Alligators appear to have a stronger immune system too. Of the twenty-three bacterial species in the study defeated by the alligator blood, the human immune system can fend off only eight.

Scientists hope to isolate and identify the protein in the alligator immune system and use them to fight stubborn infections in humans, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and diabetic foot ulcers.