Sloth hair: a potential treasure trove of bioactive compounds

When it comes to medicines, humans have been tapping the biological riches of the natural world for millennia. Herbal remedies are still used throughout the world, and many synthetic Western pharmaceuticals are based on compounds originally extracted from nature – just think of aspirin from the bark of the willow tree.

A study published last week in PLoS One takes bio-prospecting for new drugs to a new and unusual level. Researchers from the Republic of Panama and the US have surveyed fungi residing on the hair of the three-toed sloth, Bradypus variegatus, for potential pharmaceutical compounds.

Fungi have been a particularly rich source of medicinal compounds for a long time. Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1927 from the Penicillium mould, and lovastatin, the first in the widely prescribed statin class of cholesterol-lowering drugs was isolated from the soil fungus, Aspergillus terreus.

But a gradual decline over recent years in the number of bioactive compounds identified from fungi led Sarah Higginbotham and her colleagues to look for fungi further afield – they turned to the fungal residents of sloth fur. Continue reading “Sloth hair: a potential treasure trove of bioactive compounds”