Alligators make the short list

Often when scientists try to explain the value of biodiversity to the general public, they resort to hypotheticals like, “What if a rainforest plant contained the cure to cancer?” One that we might be hearing more of: “What if alligator blood was the cure for HIV?” Tests at the Georgetown University Medical Center have reportedly found:

Alligator blood serum killed all 16 strains of bacteria exposed to it, while human blood serum killed only six. Among the eradicated bacteria were E. coli and strains that cause dysentery, salmonella, and strep and staph infections. Alligator blood also killed the herpes simplex virus and a strain of HIV.

That’s good news for people and for alligators alike. While it appears that the alligator’s 230 million-year-old immune system is as formidable as its bite, the animals are more akin to the coalminers’ canary when it comes to chemical sensitivity. Reproductive abnormalities in alligators were an early indication of the endocrine-disrupting properties of some pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals which leak into the alligators’ environment. But alligators do have another thing going for them. In 1967 when the American alligator was listed as an endangered species, the Fish and Wildlife Service made the unusual decision to allow people to own and farm the species. Legal alligator farming succeeded where decades of hunting restrictions failed, and as a result the population is one of the very few species ever to be delisted under the Endangered Species Act. The potential utility of alligator-based drugs will likely earn alligators a position on another short list: the list of animals, including the fruit fly, Norwegian rat and the mosquito that transmits malaria, whose genes are being sequenced for scientific research. If the company on this second list is any indication, alligators will be around for a long time yet.