Is sloth fur the solution to fighting off superbugs?

Scientists are amazed at how sloths are able to avoid catching diseases or receiving infections
The fur of sloths like this one might harbour remarkable new medicines! (Photo 40590660 © Jenhuang99 |

May 6 to 21 is Science Odyssey, a celebration of all things science! OWLconnected is recognizing this two-week event with lots of science content, as well as with an amazing contest, presented by our friends at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Details are at the end of this post—be sure to enter!

Viruses and bacteria. Germs. These are things that we encounter everyday. And one of the amazing features of our body is its ability to fight off the vast majority of these germs.

Thanks to our impressive immune system, we rarely notice 99 percent of the foreign bugs that pass through us. Our white blood cell security guards simply stop them at the door and escorts them outside. Thanks, cells!

But, of course, occasionally something does slip through and throw us under the weather. That's why medical researchers are always on the lookout for new ways to increase the power of our security force. Many of these extra defenses take the from of antibiotics—helpful substances that are able to attack foreign germs and send them packing.

And one group of researchers think they may have found one of the most powerful sources of antibiotics yet.

In sloth fur!

Sick days used: zero

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Sloths move at their own pace, seemingly unbothered by anything. Including sickness! (Getty Embed)

Why sloths? Well, in addition to being quiet, slow-moving beasts of the rainforest, sloths have another less-well-known characteristic.

They're seemingly never sick.

Even caretakers who work with the animals daily on reserves and sanctuaries report that the creatures never seem to have a disease or illness. And their injuries almost never get infected.

Fantastic fur

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The dense fur of a sloth is home to all sorts of tiny organisms. (Getty Embed)

Eventually, people who worked with sloths began to wonder how this was true. And their investigations led to the animal's dense fur.

While all animals have small organisms living in their fur (yes, even we do in our hair, sorry!), sloth fur is basically a hotel of other organisms. Their fur is full of insects, fungi, algae, and bacteria. And many of these organisms are the types of things that would carry germs that would potentially cause infections and disease.

And yet they don't seem to harm the sloth.

Researchers from the University of Costa Rica took samples from the fur of many two- and three-toed sloths. They found the possible presence of new antibiotic-producing bacteria, living alongside these other fur-dwelling critters.

In short, the sloths appear to be protected against disease by their own private antibiotic army. Wow!

Could we use them?

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Researchers at the University of Costa Rica work with samples of sloth fur to understand the animals' resistance to disease. (Getty Embed)

These findings lead to the next question: Could these be powerful new antibiotics that humans could use?

Ever since the discovery of the world's first known antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928, antibiotics have been the backbone of how medicine treats infections. But nearly a century later, many germs have adapted a resistance to our most-used antibiotics. We need new medicines to help fight off such germs.

Could the antibiotics that live in sloth fur be the new army that we need to stop infections and disease? Maybe so. It just goes to show that solutions to big-time problems can often be found in the most surprising places!

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