Cockroaches, Alligators & Other Weird Sources of New Drugs
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Cockroaches, Alligators & Other Weird Sources of New Drugs

Antibiotics are one of humankind’s most amazing
discoveries. Ever since that fateful day in 1928 when Scottish physician Alexander Fleming
noticed a funny mold growing in one of his petri dishes, antibiotics have been kicking
bacterial butt. That famous mold, of course, was producing
penicillin, the founding antibiotic superstar, which has since extended the average human
life by at least a decade. It fundamentally changed the face of medicine. Antibiotics,
or antimicrobials, are basically selective poisons designed to either kill or slow the
growth of bacteria to the point where your body’s own immune system can clean up. These
drugs target a specific part of bacteria or some important stage in their development
without damaging the body’s host cells. And they’re really great their job. Until they
aren’t. Lately, antibiotic technology has been having
a hard time keeping pace with bacterial evolution. We’ve talked here on SciShow about how lots
of your die-hard, go-to favorite antibiotics are starting to lose their mojo in the face
of sneaky and rapidly evolving bacteria. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
estimates that at least 2,000,000 Americans became infected with drug-resistant bacteria
in 2012, and 23,000 of them died as a result. These superbugs are deadly serious and could
quickly unleash a global health crisis if we don’t find a way to keep them in check.
The problem is we’ve already hit up many of the most obvious sources of antibiotics, like
fungi, which includes penicillin, and synthetic molecules.
Fortunately, we humans have big, delicious brains, and some of the best of them are hard
at work trying to invent all-new ways to kill dangerous bacteria or find other organisms
on the planet that are better at it than we are so we can steal their secrets. And while
they’re finding some promising leads, I gotta say, they’re looking in some pretty weird
places. [Intro] You know how everyone jokes that after some
big global disaster, only cockroaches will survive? Well, we recently found what may
partially explain their famous, and infuriating, tenacity. Research from the University of
Nottingham suggests that certain insects, like roaches and locusts, have brain tissues
that are infused with super-powered antibiotic juju. The researchers found nine different
antibiotic molecules tucked into the roaches’ nervous systems that may be protecting them
from otherwise lethal bacteria. They’re all a type of molecule known as peptides, short
chains of amino acids that make up proteins, kinda like proto-proteins. And these peptides
are specific to the bugs’ brains. They seem to be chemicals that roaches” brain cells
use to communicate with each other, y’know, whenever a cockroach is sitting around thinking
about stuff, which I guess can happen, and although we’re not sure how these peptides
actually work, laboratory tests have shown that they’re incredibly effective at eliminating
some of our least favorite bacteria, like the most dangerous strains of e.coli, which
cause gastrointestinal infections. And even MRSA, a super-resistant type of staphylococcus
bacterium that can cause unstoppable deadly infections in humans, particularly in hospitals.
In lab trials, these roach brain molecules killed over 90% of MRSA bacteria, without
harming any host cells. So I can guess what you’re thinking: shut
up and take my money! Well, hold on a sec, because we’re a bit away from having cockroach
brains on the pharmacy shelves. There’s still loads of technical hurdles to overcome, tests
to conduct, basic things we need to figure out, like how exactly these molecules work.
But roaches aren’t the only hardy animals out there. Alligators are some of the Earth’s
most rugged beasts. They essentially live in cesspool swamps teeming with bacteria and
fungus and other microbes, and more than that, they’re known brawlers. Put just a few territorial
800 pound toothy reptiles together in a dirty swamp, and you will no doubt come out with
some serious bite marks and bloody wounds, even missing limbs. But amazingly, what you
probably won’t find are any infections. This got some bayou scientists to thinkin’!
Dr. Mark Merchant, a biochemist at McNeese State University in Louisiana, helped conduct
a decade long study that investigated what makes alligators so unusually resistant to
bacterial and fungal infection. Turns out, it’s in their blood. An alligator’s
immune system is largely innate, meaning it can fight off harmful micro-organisms without
having any prior exposure to them. They just pop right out of their eggs ready to do battle.
We humans also have some innate immunity, provided by things like our skin and white
blood cells, but a big part of our immunities are adaptive, meaning we often develop a resistance
to specific diseases only after being exposed to them. Which of course is not ideal all
the time, but alligators get to skip this step. Researchers examining blood samples from American
alligators isolated their infection fighting white blood cells and then extracted the active
proteins working in those cells. And these two included a special class of peptides which
seemed to have a knack for weakening the membranes of bacteria, causing them to die. When pitted
against a wide range of bacteria including drug-resistant MRSA, these tough little peptides
proved to be effective killers. They also wiped out 6 of 8 strains of candida albicans,
a type of yeast infection that’s particularly troublesome for AIDS and transplant patients
with weakened immune systems. Such compounds may also be found in similar animals, like
crocodiles, Komodo dragons, and the skins of some frogs and toads. So far, lab trials
have shown that gator blood can kill at least 23 different strains of bacteria including
salmonella, e.coli, staph, and strep infections AND even a strain of HIV. For now, scientists
are working to find the exact chemical structures at work in four of these promising chemicals
and pinpoint which types are best at killing which microbes. One problem so far: high concentrations
of gator blood serum have already been found to be so powerful that they are toxic to human
cells. So other biologists are taking a different approach in the search for the next generation
of antibiotics. Rather than looking at other animals, they’re
exploring strange, new places, like cave soils and deep-sea sediments. Researchers have recently
discovered evidence of promising new fungi strains living way down in hundred million
year old nutrient-starved sediments in the Pacific Ocean. Everyone thought this was a
near-dead zone for life, too harsh and remote an environment for something like fungi to
survive in. Just a decade ago, the only living things known to inhabit such deep sediment
layers were single-celled bacteria and archaea, organisms known to flourish in extreme environments.
But while examining dredged up sediments from as deep as 127 meters into the sea floor,
scientists found fungi of at least eight different types, four of which they successfully cultured
in the lab. Some of the fungi even belonged to the genus Penicillium, which we have to
thank for the development of penicillin. Now, we’re not exactly sure how old these fungi
are, but they are definitely quite old and maybe, more importantly, they appear to have
been living in isolation for eons. If that’s the case, they may have evolved specific and
unusual defenses against bacteria, which, just like their penicillin kin in that famous
petri dish, could end up being a new and powerful source of antibiotics.
And there’s one more strategy that scientists are using, one that works in espionage as
well as in medicine. And that is seeing what the enemy is up to.
While exploring life in strange new places around the world, some biologists are looking
for bacteria that have never been exposed to our drugs, but still appear to be naturally
resistant to them. Wherever we find the most naturally resistant
bacteria, we might also find natural antibiotics that we never knew about.
And here, one of the most promising leads is again in one of the hardest-to-reach places:
New Mexico’s Lechuguilla cave, a place that was isolated from all human contact until
it was discovered in the 1980’s. One of the many fascinating things that scientists
have discovered here is that the cave bacteria seem to be resistant to everything.
Even though they’ve never been exposed to us or our drugs, all of the bacteria have
proven to be resistant to at least one major antibiotic, and many tend to fend off more
than a dozen of the most powerful antimicrobials we have. This suggests to scientists that
the bacteria have evolved to be this way because they live in an environment that’s rich in
naturally occurring antibiotics, ones that the germs we live with up here on the surface
have never encountered. Now we just have to find out what exactly
those compounds are. So look, I’m not going to lie to you: we have
a lot of work to do. While we might discover a new super-drug lurking
in a cave or under the sea or in a cockroach’s head, there’s a big difference between finding
a substance that cleans house in a petri dish and actually putting a new antibiotic in the
vein of a human patient. So the bummer is, as promising as some of
these bold new discoveries may be, none of them has yet yielded an actual marketable
drug. Still, there’s a long list of successful antibiotics
that we’ve managed to derive from strange sources, starting with Dr. Fleming’s rogue
fungus. So if we keep exploring strange new places
and studying how other animals deal with the problems we’re facing, we just might find
the next penicillin before the superbugs get the best of us. Thanks for watching this SciShow Infusion,
especially to our Subbable subscribers. To learn how you can support us in exploring
the world, just go to And as always, if you want to keep getting smarter
with us, you can go to and subscribe.


  • Sazy Plew

    Great…now I’ve a natural method for taking antibiotics, but I need the ratio of cockroach heads to single antibiotic pill! LMAO!

  • Bazooka Llama Productions

    Cockroaches are not technically bugs. A true bug (like an assassin bug or a wheel bug) must have a proboscis as well as other specific features in order to receive said classification. Maybe a new video idea. Even lady bugs are not true bugs.

  • Brillo Pad

    Sorry, I had to stop listening after 2-minutes so my nervous system wouldn't blow a circuit breaker. PLEASE don't do meth just before you record a video.

  • Mariojosé ANGELES

    In September 2010, a group of scientists gathered at
    the University of Nottingham, England, confirmed the following: Cockroaches, more than a health risk, could
    become a rich source of antibiotics.

    "Since 1995, I am proposing that the most effective and 100% effective solution of preventive HIV

    / AIDS vaccine is found in the proteins of cockroaches.

    Approaches and solutions:

    We must take the strength of cockroaches, they

    are the oldest and most powerful living beings on the face of the earth. It is
    estimated that they can be 350 to 400 million years old. They have survived
    great cataclysms, atmospheric phenomena and also atomic bombs. There are thousands of varieties of cockroaches, but specifically the "Periplaneta" or American cockroach is the one I am proposing that we use in research.

    I explain: strengthen our Immunological System
    (CD + 4 T lymphocytes) with cockroach proteins and create the necessary
    antibodies to be able to resist and coexist with HIV. CD + 4 T lymphocytes are
    the most powerful and highest-ranking cells of our immune system and it is
    precisely they that attract, receive and host the Human Immunodeficiency Virus

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