Unbalancing Act

Nature's Secrets: Learning from Animals

Animals, large and small—and even bacteria in dirt—hide medical miracles. The key is to find them before too much of the natural world is lost.

Just like a knight used armor or you use a bicycle helmet, disease-causing microbes have devised ways to protect themselves from the antibiotics that destroy them. This is called antibiotic resistance.

Because overuse of antibiotics helps microbes become resistant, doctors are becoming more cautious about prescribing them, and farmers are cutting back on using antibiotics on their animals and their crops.

Almost three-quarters of the bacteria that cause infections in hospitals can resist at least one antibiotic. And the number of antibiotic-resistant microbes is rising. To make matters worse, researchers have found only one new class of antibiotic in the past 30 years, and some bacteria are already resistant to it.


How could astronauts on long space voyages benefit from sleeping bears? To survive long winters, bears hibernate, or go into a deep sleep, for up to seven months. If humans were to lie still for that long, their bones would weaken and their muscles would waste away.

If scientists can figure out how bears stay strong, they could find a way to help astronauts who can't do weight-bearing exercise in the weightless environment of outer space. They could also help millions of people suffering from diseases such as osteoporosis, or who are confined to beds or wheelchairs.

Bears. Source: USFWS (Larry Aumiller)
How do bears take care of business?
Scientists want to know.

Source: USFWS (Larry Aumiller)

During hibernation, bears may go without a bathroom break for four months or longer. This means that urine and feces stay in their bodies. Yet bears stay healthy. They somehow convert toxic urea—a waste product left behind after the body processes food—into useful proteins. When urea builds up in the bodies of humans and other mammals, they become sick and often die. Understanding bears could help us decipher a wide range of human diseases, including kidney problems. This is just one more reason why protecting biodiversity is crucial.


Shark. Source: Curtis Krueger, North Carolina  State Aquariums
Source: Curtis Krueger
North Carolina State Aquariums

Sharks may scare us, but they may also save us from cancer and other diseases. Sharks rarely get infections or tumors and have evolved natural antibiotics and immune proteins that help protect them. Scientists have already identified one substance—squalamine,
which prevents the spread of tumors in tests.

Many shark species are on the endangered species list. If they become extinct, we may lose our chance to learn from them.

Milking a snake for venom. Source: David Williams
Milking a snake for venom 
Source: David Williams


Snake poison can be deadly but can also heal humans after scientists extract chemicals and change them. One new medicine made from snake venom may lower blood pressure in humans. Another offers the potential to prevent some cancers from reappearing.

Primates and human evolution. Source: SNZP
Learning how primates choose mates or teach their young may also help us understand human evolution
Source: SNZP


If deforestation and habitat destruction continue, chimpanzees, orangutans, and other primates—who are our closest relatives—may live only in zoos and research centers. This would be tragic for them—and for us. Many primates, for example, eat particular plants only when they are sick and dab other plants on their wounds. What medicines might these plants hold for humans?

Leafcutter ant at work
Source: University of Michigan


"Leafcutter" ants—whose home is the tropical rainforest—have bacteria on their legs that produce antibiotics. These antibiotics—chemicals that kill disease-causing microbes—protect the ants' food supply. The ants have been using these antibiotics for millions of years yet have had no apparent problem with microbes becoming antibiotic-resistant. Because antibiotic resistance is one of the major problems facing modern medicine today, maybe we could learn from these ants.

Fungus. Source: MicroAngela Source: MicroAngela


Learn more about penicillin and the men who received the Nobel Prize for discovering it (at Nobel’s e-Museum), and listen to one prizewinner (Alexander Fleming) talk about antibiotics (from the British Library Sound Archive).

Frog. Source: SNZP, Jessie Cohen Source: SNZP, Jessie Cohen


When injured or frightened, many types of frogs release a white sticky paste through their skin. It turns out that this paste has powerful antibiotics that could someday help humans too.




Researchers working in a soil microbe lab. Source: NCI/NMAH Researchers working in a soil microbe lab
Source: NCI/NMA


Soil, commonly called dirt, is decomposed organic matter and broken rocks. We already know that bacteria in dirt contain some powerful medicines, like cyclosporine, an immune-suppressing drug that helps people who have had organ transplants or who suffer from severe cases of psoriasis, eczema, and other skin diseases. What other medicines might lurk in the dirt?


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How do plants have so much power?back_unbalance

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