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Bits & Pieces: Sloth Hair–A New way to fight disease?

Ann Welch
Ann Welch

In my last column I wrote about the fascinating sloth, a tree dwelling mammal of South and Central America. This week I want to share exciting news about current research on the fungi which grow on the coarse outer hair of the 3-toed sloth. What is the significance of this? Researchers are finding that 84 types of fungi were found in cultures from the surface of sloth hair in the study. In studying the fungi scientists found potent anti-parasitic, anti-cancer, and anti-bacterial bioactivity. Bioactivity means that the fungi could interact with living cells to affect their functions, as medicines do to alleviate or control disease in humans. Specific diseases that could be affected by this research on sloth hair fungus are malaria, Chagas disease(a life threatening disease found in Mexico, Central and South America) and a line of human breast cancer called MCF-7.

In tests on 50 fungal extracts, 20 were found to be active on at least 1 bacterial strain. These results suggest a potentially new approach with bacterial induced diseases, , and demonstrate the bioactivity of fungi from sloth hair for the first time.

This research confirms why we should never view any living creature as “useless”. Who would have thought the slow-moving, gentle sloth would offer us new ways of fighting serious disease? And with no harm to the sloths—culturing the fungus from their hair would not be harmful to them. In the words of the scientists who authored this study: “The extraordinary biological diversity of tropical forests harbors a rich chemical diversity with enormous potential as a source of novel bioactive compounds.”

We must protect the rainforests of our world and the life forms living in them. All the rainforest creatures and plant life have their own significance to the patterns of life on earth, and as this new information on possible new medications from sloth hair shows, we cannot afford to lose or disregard any of them.