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Crocodile cure

Updated Tuesday, 1st August 2006

Television producer Jill Fullerton-Smith discovered how crocodiles can heal themselves in bacteria-filled water

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"In television we have to make films that entertain people. People are very interested in anything with big teeth. And so I volunteered that I would look for a film with big teeth."

Jill believes that the crocodile is one of the scariest beasts you are ever going to encounter because they are "still, calm and so quiet. You know that if you go anywhere near them, you are dead".

Philippine crocodile [Image: Sibylle Stofer underCC-BY-NC-SA licence]
Philippine crocodile [Image: Sibylle Stofer under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

Jill bumped into a young zoologist called Adam Briton who absolutely loves crocodiles. One of the things that interested him about crocodiles was that as part of their natural behaviour they fight other crocodiles and regularly lose limbs. What amazed him was that crocodiles sit in dirty, bacteria-filled water and yet they never seemed to get infections – their limbs heal quickly. So why does this happen?

Jill says it took her three months to realise that this was a fantastic question.Why is it that a crocodile could heal in the same bacteria filled water that would cause us to die from infection if we had the same sort of wound?

"There had to be something amazing in the crocodile’s immune system and we very quickly found out that there is a little string of peptides that were only discovered very recently in the last eight or nine years and they are a powerful mechanism for fighting bacteria".

Jill set out to make a film about the collecting of the samples. It was a long wait to find out if there was this peptide in the crocodile’s blood.

"I think we waited five months for the results to come through and the film’s coming up to transmission and we get the call to say that they’ve found it".

Rozina Ali, a plastic surgeon, explains that anti-microbial peptides are small proteins – lots of amino acids put together in various configurations. The interesting thing about them to medics is that they are anti-microbial which means that they work against microbes and microbes means bacteria, fungi and viruses. She says: "As far as we know so far there aren’t any organisms which have any resistance to these anti-microbial peptides. It’s something that is going to have a lot of import in the future in medicine.

She believes that some scientific discoveries are just luck, serendipity. "People happen to find something but I don’t think it’s pure luck. You ask the question – why do crocodiles not get infections – and then you set out to answer the question. And what it takes is not the initial idea but the actual perseverance and stamina to see it through and I think that’s what makes a scientist."

Jill Fullerton says that her job as a television producer is to ask the obvious questions.

"If I don’t understand it, then no-one else is either. I do not have a science background. I just got interested in something and fell in love with it. All I would say to anyone is ask those questions. They may appear terribly simple but in that question there might be a whole world that is waiting to be discovered."


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