Gator Blood Could Hold Keys to Fight Infection in Humans

By Joshua Rapp Learn

Alligator George Mason University professor Barney Bishop poses with his pal Fluffy, an American alligator.
Photo courtesy of St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park

The defenses that have helped alligators survive festering wounds received in territorial battles while hanging around in stagnant swamps and gobbling up rotting carrion could hold the key to helping soldiers treat battlefield injuries.

Researchers from Virginia’s George Mason University are working on the fourth year of a project supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) looking for compounds in crocodilian blood that help the animals beat infections.

Alligator

George Mason University professor Monique van Hoek is shown at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, St. Augustine Florida.
Photo courtesy of St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.

“Nature has given us a library of compounds that animals have evolved to fight infection,” said Barney Bishop, a chemist at George Mason and lead author of a recent study published in PLOS ONE. “We’re just trying to tap in to use what they’re using to fend off diseases.”

The team took blood samples from American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida.

They then put the gators’ blood through a mass spectrometer and discovered a number of antimicrobial peptides previously unknown to science, said Monique van Hoek, senior author and systems biologist at GMU.

Bishop said that at least two of them are effective against E. coli as well as some other pathogens. These could be developed for use by humans in battlefield conditions, and even civilian applications down the road. He also said that the next stage in the five-year, $7.57-million study will be to look at the blood of different crocodilian species.

In order to curtail to the sensitive natures of the toothy reptiles, the authors said that precautions were taken, however. “No alligators were harmed in the sampling of the blood,” said van Hoek. “They were lassoed and the keeper would hold them with a towel in their eyes.”

“They’re a lot brighter than you think they are,” Bishop said of the gators, adding that he’d made friends with one of the toothy reptiles. “Fluffy’s my bud.”

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society.

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