Sloths have quickly become the center of a great deal of excitement in the medical world. Researchers from Panama and the United States have discovered that multiple species of fungi growing on sloth hair may be the answer to a large list of medical maladies. The discovery is examined in a recent peer reviewed study published on January 15th.
In the study, researchers examined a total of 84 fungal samples found on the coarse outer hair of nine live three-toed sloths. The fungus filled sloths are native to the Soberanía National Park, in the Republic of Panama. A large number of these fungal samples were found to be beneficial in a number of different ways. Anti-cancer, anti-parasitic, and anti-bacterial properties were all exhibited by at least one species of fungus found on the three-toed sloths. More specifically, fungus found growing on sloth hair proved to exhibit bioactivity against
Trypanosoma cruzi, the causal agent of Chagas disease; Plasmodium falciparum, the causal agent of malaria; the human breast cancer cell line MCF-7; and a range of Gram-negative and Gram-positive human pathogenic bacteria.
This is great news since Chagas disease is listed by the CDC as one of the top five most neglected parasitic infections in the US based on its severity, the number of people infected, and the ability to prevent and treat it. This is largely due to a lack of awareness regarding the disease. Over 8 million people in Mexico, Central America, and South America have Chagas disease. It has made its way to the United States with nearly 300,000 US citizens currently diagnosed with the illness. Sloths to the rescue.
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As for malaria and cancer, the need to find an expedient cure or effective preventative mechanism is clear. Over 3 billion people live in a malaria-risk zone. 655,000 people (86% were children) died in 2010 of malaria. Everyone is at risk for cancer. 8.2 million people died from cancer in 2012. There’s no need to elaborate on the need to find a cure for these illnesses.
Not surprisingly, this is the first time fungal samples found on sloth hair have been tested and reported to be at least minimally effective in treating human disease. Who would have thought that something so slow and easy to catch would prove to be so extremely beneficial to us?
The researchers originally chose the three-toed sloth as a viable candidate for harboring natural medicinal substances due to the vast amount of fungus and algae that grows on the sloths’ hair. Since the discovery of penicillin more than 80 years ago, fungi began and continue to be widely used for their medicinal benefits. This applies to both raw fungus, and fungus as a base for chemical derivatives used in various types of medicine around the world.
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Unfortunately, the success rate of finding a fungus that exhibits bioactivity against human sources of diseases has dramatically slowed. This led some scientists to believe that we had already discovered the easy to find bioactive fungi. As the authors state in the study, many scientists believed that the slowed rate of discovery could be an indication of,
the impending exhaustion of ‘low hanging fruit’ – the easily and frequently accessed fungi such as soil microfungi – as sources of new bioactive metabolites.
Simply put, with the exhaustion of “low hanging fruit,” discovering and creating effective medicine becomes increasingly difficult. However, just because the “low hanging fruit” is exhausted doesn’t mean the whole tree has been uprooted. We have discovered less than 100,000 different fungal species out of the conservative estimate of five million species of fungus that calls Earth its home. This is why scientists are starting to get creative in the places they look for new, bioactive fungi. Cue the the three-toed sloth, and wait a few hours for it to make its grand appearance.
The researchers suggest that their results illustrate that sloth hair may be a potential source of even more bioactive fungi. They note that there are five other sloth species on the planet with fungi-filled hair ready for examination.
It takes a great deal of time and luck to find a new, effective medicinal constituent. Let’s hope father time and lady luck are on our side. As for sloths; thanks for hanging around.