Did you know that there’s no universally accepted plural of ‘platypus’ in the English language, that the popular ‘platypi’ is an incorrect form of pseudo-Latin and that the most popular plural is ‘platypuses’? Did you know that male platypuses produce a potent venom which they excrete and inject via spurs on their hind legs to ward off competitors during mating season? Did you know that same venom has been discovered to contain a hormone which can also treat type-2 diabetes in humans? You didn’t? This is what happens when you watch nothing but cable news shows.
This is an amazing example of how millions of years of evolution can shape molecules and optimise their function.
Professor Frank Grutzner at the University of Adelaide and Associate Professor Briony Forbes at Flinders University released the results of their new study of platypus venom and its medicinal qualities in the journal Scientific Reports. The hormone glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), a hormone also secreted in the guts of humans and many mammals, stimulates the release of insulin to lower blood glucose levels. The platypus also creates GLP-1 in its gut but the form in its venom was more interesting and valuable because the GLP-1 in it lasts longer before degrading.
We’ve discovered conflicting functions of GLP-1 in the platypus: in the gut as a regulator of blood glucose, and in venom to fend off other platypus males during breeding season. This tug of war between the different functions has resulted in dramatic changes in the GLP-1 system.
Briony Forbes decided that if you’re going to check one monotreme (egg-laying mammals found only in Australia and New Guinea), you might as well check them all. It turns out GLP-1 is also made in the guts of echidnas but not delivered through spurs on the hind legs of echidna males. What’s up with that?
The lack of a spur on echidnas remains an evolutionary mystery, but the fact that both platypus and echidnas have evolved the same long-lasting form of the hormone GLP-1 is in itself a very exciting finding.
Sounds like the makings of another study. However, that study will have to wait while Gutzner, Forbes and their fellow researchers try to figure out what to do with the platypus GLP-1.
These findings have the potential to inform diabetes treatment, one of our greatest health challenges, although exactly how we can convert this finding into a treatment will need to be the subject of future research.
Indeed. The last thing rare male platypuses need is diabetic humans disturbing their mating by making the sounds of fertile females in hopes of getting stabbed by a venomous GLP-1-loaded spur.