Costa Rica | Sloths carrying antibiotics in the future?

(Cahuita) A researcher believes he can discover new antibiotics in Costa Rica by studying the bacteria found in sloths, after observing that these tropical animals never get sick.

According to Max Chavarria of the University of Costa Rica, sloths have a unique biotope of insects, algae, and bacteria in their coats that they seem to protect.

“If someone studies a sloth’s fur, they’ll see movement: moths, different kinds of insects […] A very large habitat, and it is clear that when there is coexistence of many types of organisms, there must be a system that controls them,” he explains to AFP.

During his research, since 2020, the scientist has proven that “microorganisms (which) are capable of producing antibiotics that make it possible to regulate the presence of pathogenic agents in the sloth’s coat”.

“These are bacteria belonging to the genus Rothia and Brevibacterium,” specifies the researcher, who published the results of his studies in the scientific journal. Environmental Microbiology.

The whole question is whether these antibiotics have a future in human pharmacopoeia.

Sloths, two species that coexist in Costa Rica – Bradypus variegatus or three-toed sloth, and Choloepus hoffmanni or two-toed sloths – live in the trees of the tropical forests of Central America, especially on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in a humid climate with temperatures ranging from 22 to 30 degrees percentage.

The population of this peaceful mammal — also found in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and Venezuela — is considered to be in “declining” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

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In Costa Rica, American Judy Avey runs the Cahuita Sloth Sanctuary, which she founded with her late Costa Rican husband Luis Arroyo. Injured animals are collected to be cared for.

A thousand sloths were saved

Judy Avey used to live in Alaska and when she got to Costa Rica, she was unaware these animals existed.

In 1992, the couple raised and cared for their first sloth, called Buttercup: since then, about a thousand people have passed through this sanctuary on the Caribbean coast about 200 kilometers from San Jose.

It was only natural that Max Chavarria would turn to Judy Avey to study the sloths, whom he takes care of after being electrocuted on high-voltage cables, struck by cars, injured by dogs, or separated from their mothers when they were young.

“We’ve never taken in a sick sloth […] Some of them were burned by high voltage cables and their arms were injured […] But they don’t have an infection,” Judy Avey notes.

Max Chavarria clipped hair from 15 individuals of each species and cultured them in the lab to study them.

After three years of research, the scientist has counted about two dozen “candidates” for the production of antibiotics, but everything still needs to be done to consider application to humans.

“We first have to understand the system (which produces immunity in sloths) and which molecules are involved,” explains the researcher.

Nature is the first laboratories, according to him, to cite the example of penicillin, which was discovered in 1928 by the British Alexander Fleming, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945, from fungi that naturally synthesize this antibiotic.

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The discovery of new antibiotics is a major issue since the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that resistance to current antibiotics could cause 10 million deaths each year by mid-century.

“That is why projects like ours can contribute to the discovery of new molecules that can be used, in the medium or long term, in this fight against antibiotic resistance,” Max Chavarria assures.

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