As Sebastian the crab croons in The Little Mermaid hit “Under the Sea”:
Just look at the world around you
Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful things surround you
What more is you lookin’ for?
Turns out Sebastian and his gang of sea creatures were on to something. Recent studies indicate that creatures of the deep, from the platypus to lobsters, hold potential to help change how we treat disease.
For one, duck-billed platypus venom (yes, they have venom) may have potential as a Type 2 diabetes treatment. “We have privileged access to these amazing animals,” the University of Adelaide’s Dr. Frank Grutzner said in a press release about studying the semi-aquatic Australian icon. “And male platypuses produce venom during the breeding season.” This method of scaring off the other guys involves emitting the hormone GLP-1—Glucagon-Like Peptide—that can fuel insulin to lower blood glucose.
Grutzner and his team compared two species, platypuses and humans, to see how evolution shaped certain molecules. This comparison “revealed that dramatic changes occurred to the platypus hormone that is key to blood-sugar regulation,” Grutzner wrote to the Daily Beast in an email. “We think this occurred because in the platypus this hormone has a function in its gut and in its venom — unlike the gut-only function in humans.”
This double-duty role may have caused it to evolve into a more powerful blood-sugar regulator than any others, making it less likely to degrade than treatments currently used by diabetics do. “We were surprised to see GLP-1 present in venom, and think that this may have led to a more effective hormone,” notes Grutzner, who is the leader of years-long studies into platypus genomes and metabolic hormones. “Our data so far indicate that in fact the platypus hormone could have beneficial effects for blood-sugar regulation for Type 2 diabetes.”
Like untold numbers of seafood lovers, Dr. Yang Yang recently had trouble breaking lobster claws while eating at a restaurant. Other frustrated diners might just stare longingly at the lemon-and-butter cup into which they have nothing to dip, but the University of Southern California engineering researcher was spurred to wonder if concussion-proof helmets could be built like lobster shells. Concussion injuries menace athletes from Little League to the NFL, but could lobsters offer a solution toward uncrackable helmets?
The reason lobster shells are hard to crack is that they consist of fibers stacked up at three different angles, making them unusually resistant to fracture. Breaking only one fiber is what seafood-cracking utensils will do—until serious force is applied.
“Rotating layers are the structure we see in lobsters,” Yang told the Daily Beast. “Because of the layering mechanics, a crack cannot fracture through all the layers.” Breaking only one fiber leaves all the others—and their nested interconnectedness—undamaged. “So a small crack cannot generate a long crack that you might see in other materials,” Yang explained.
Shells have the capacity to endure tremendous force, compared to materials of less complex design. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists have shown how shells’ stacks of fibers are uniquely resistant to fracture, due to the three separate levels of their architecture. The three tiers make it tough or impossible for cracks to widen into a break. And this is what makes them a ready model for sports helmets.
Yang and Yong Chen, a University of Southern California Industrial and Systems Engineering professor, are developing 3-D printed, microscopic-sized carbon nanotubes that are aligned into lobster-inspired layers of resiliency. Their carbon nanotubes mimic the real-life shell fibers. The process could be used to print fracture-proof helmets. They are also researching how to make the fibers bio-compatible, so that perhaps human knee meniscus parts—which have similar and naturally occurring radial-style structures—can be 3-D printed as knee replacements.
Future horse jockeys, baseball batters, skiers and football players could be scanned for custom-fitted, super-strength 3-D-printed helmets on the spot. A person’s knee could be scanned to print a prosthetic meniscus.
Like lobster shells, deep-sea sponges are cellularly unique. Florida Atlantic University’s Oceanographic Institute researchers collect sea sponges from the ocean because they contain microbes that can be processed to fight serious infections.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent threats to public health, and can cause illnesses that were once treatable to now become untreatable, leading to dangerous infections. MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection, has become perilously resistant to many antibiotics, especially in hospitals and nursing-facility settings, where recovering patients are most vulnerable. C Diff, or Clostridium difficile infection, is also resistant.
FAU’s Dr. Peter McCarthy and his team cultivate microbes they obtain from deep-sea sponges into antibiotic compounds. “These compounds kill disease-causing microbes, including bacteria such as MRSA and C Diff,” he wrote to the Daily Beast in an email. McCarthy is also looking for antibiotics that fight Pseudomonas Aeruginosa, which is a severe problem for cystic fibrosis patients.
“The microbes we are interested in are the ‘actinobacteria’—a group of bacteria that are known to produce many interesting antibiotics, some of which have been used in medicine for many years,” he explains. By searching in the sea, “We find actinobacteria that are unusual and which may produce new antibiotics,” McCarthy wrote.
His team also investigates the genetic potential of sponges. “In many cases, microbes have the potential to make compounds in their genomes but the compounds are not made under lab conditions. We are exploring ways to ‘turn-on these genes’ to produce new compounds,” he wrote.
Medical innovators are diving in, and the water’s fine.