Sloths in Costa Rica have proven to have in their fur some bacteria that produce antibiotics that keep pathogens that can get the animal at bay. Could this finding have some application in humans?
That question tries to be answered by the researcher Max Chavarría, from the University of Costa Rica, after discovering in the fur of these peculiar tropical mammals a unique bioma of insects, fungi, algae and bacteria in a delicate balance that avoids diseases. “If one sees the fur of a lazy one sees movement; that is, you may see moths, among different types of insects (…), we have a very wide habitat and clearly when there is coexistence of many types of organisms. There must also be systems that control them”,Chavarría explains to AFP.
The researcher found that there are “microorganisms capable of producing antibiotics that allowed regulating the presence of pathogens in the fur of sloths. They are bacteria belonging to the order of the micrococcal, mainly of the genres Rothia and Brevibacterium”,says the researcher, whose discovery was published in the Environmental Microbiology scientific journal.
After discovering these antibiotics in lazy, Chavarría wonders if their finding can have in the future uses in medicine that help counteract resistance to antibiotics that human beings develop.
There are only 2 species in Costa Rica
Sloths are part of the collective imaginary in Costa Rica, national emblem and natural attraction for tourists. There are 2 species in the country: Bradypusvariegatus or 3-finger sloth and Choloepushoffmanni or 2-finger sloth. They live in the trees of the jungles of the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, with a humid and hot weather (between 22 and 30 Celsius degrees).
The population of both species is in a situation of “decrease”, according to the red list of threatened species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In this regard, there are also sloths in the jungles of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela.
Lizzas de Cahuita Sanctuary
In this Caribbean area of Costa Rica is the Sanctuary of Lizzas de Cahuita, created by the American Judy Avey and her late Costa Rican husband, Luis Arroyo, where sloths are rehabilitated, when they are injured by the action of people or other animals. “We mainly rescue, rehabilitate, and study sloths”, says the woman to the AFP, who before arriving at Costa Rica lived in Alaska and did not even know that these mammals existed.
Since they received the first sloth in 1992, which they called ‘Buttercup’, they worried about caring for them and healing them. Since then, some 1,000 copies have gone through this sanctuary located 200 kilometers per route from San José.
Chavarría went to Avey to use in his investigation some of the lazy people who were in rehabilitation for having electrocuted with high voltage cables, having been hit by vehicles, attacked by dogs or separated from their mothers being small. “We have never received a lazy sick (…). Some have high voltage cable burns and their arms are shattered”, says Avey. “But they have no infection (…), that tells us that there is something in the ecosystem of his body”, he adds. Chavarría cut back from the back of 15 copies of each species to take it to the laboratory to examine the samples, cultivate and confirm their hypothesis.
Could human application be possible?
In 2020,Chavarría launched his investigation and 3 years later he already has “delimited” 20 “candidates” microorganisms to be identified. But many steps are still missing before thinking about human application. “Before thinking about a human health application, it is important to understand the system first and what types of molecules are involved in it”, says the researcher, who thinks that nature is a natural laboratory.
Proof of this is penicillin, discovered in 1928 by the British Alexander Fleming, from fungi that naturally synthesize the molecule that generates antibiotics and that earned its discoverer the Nobel Prize in Medicine, in 1945. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 antibiotic resistance could cause 10 million deaths per year.
“The search for new strategies to combat resistance to antibiotics has remained in the hands of the Academy”, says Chavarría. “That is why projects like ours can contribute to find, why not, new molecules that can, in a medium or long term, be used in this battle that we have of antibiotic resistance”, he adds.