Echidna milk unlikely study tool

Tuesday, 31 January, 2006

High tech analysis of milk from an echidna will assist Australian Dairy CRC scientists to discover new components, known as bioactives, which may have health and nutritional benefits for humans.

The echidna is a unique Australian mammal which lays eggs. It carries its egg in a pouch-like flap of muscle for ten days. When the egg hatches, the young echidna or "puggle" is smaller than a grain of cooked rice, weighs only 200 milligrams and is similar to an embryo.

For the next 50 days, the puggle lives in the pouch where it suckles from a milk patch and grows rapidly, increasing in size up to 10 times. The mother then leaves the puggle in a nursery burrow until it is about seven months old, returning every five days to allow suckling.

In most mammals, the majority of the early growth and development occurs inside the womb, with nutrients delivered through the placenta. However, it seems that all the factors required for growth of the puggle are found in the echidna's milk. It contains some unique proteins and peptides that are very likely to have a major role in regulating growth and development.

Researchers at the Dairy CRC are investigating these factors, or bioactives, in the hope of discovering similar bioactives in cows' milk. These can then be used in the development of food products with nutritional benefits or, potentially, pharmaceuticals.

Analysing the genes that control the production of milk in the echidna could also help uncover genes in dairy cows that are vital in the lactation process.

Supported by the Geoffrey Gardiner Research Foundation, this research is an expansion of the Dairy CRC's Mining Australian Biodiversity project which is investigating the milk and lactation systems of the tammar wallaby and the Australian fur seal. The project is part of the Dairy CRC's Gene Discovery Program which aims to identify, isolate and determine the function of specific genes in the dairy cow. Genes of interest include those that impact on lactation and the production of bioactives, disease resistance and reproduction.

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