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Festival of science Monday, 11 September, 2000, 20:39 GMT 21:39 UK
Australian mammal is medical star
BBC
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

Humans might one day be able to enter a state of "suspended animation" by studying the secrets of the echidna, one of the oldest surviving mammals in the world.

The small, spiny, burrowing mammal found only in Australia and New Guinea enters a state of torpor, or hibernation, when food or water is scarce, lowering its metabolism and body temperature to conserve energy and survive.

Several research groups are investigating how the echidna does this, although so far the precise biological mechanism remains a mystery.

Dr Peggy Rismiller of the University of Adelaide told the British Association's Festival of Science that studying the echidna could reveal important tantalising secrets for medical science, perhaps one day enabling humans to achieve a state of "deep sleep" useful for anything from surgery without anaesthesia to space travel.

As one of the world's oldest mammals, the echidna's history has spanned 120 million years. Its ancestors walked with the dinosaurs, surviving numerous global and climatic changes that wiped out many other creatures.

The echidna is one of three living monotremes or egg-laying mammals and has long intrigued naturalists. But Dr Rismiller said some of the animal's mysteries were now being explained.

'Pure hormones'

"Echidnas have a lower body temperature than any other mammal in the world. Their active body temperature is 31 to 33C and they can also lower their body temperature down close to ambient," she said.

"If we could naturally lower metabolism, then it would be of great benefit for medical purposes and secondly looking at space travel and things like that.

"But first we have to understand how it works - is it pure hormones, is it in the genes? We don't know.

"Other animals do this thing called torpor, lowering body temperature, but the echidna is the oldest surviving mammal. So from an evolutionary point, they're the first one in the chain and they're the ones that are going to give us a lot of clues to the way that we have evolved not only our body temperature but a lot of other things."

Dr Rismiller said they had already found that echidna milk contained a type of sugar that was present in minute quantities in human milk and might be responsible for boosting the immune system of the young.

And she said human kind could learn other lessons from the creature's survival strategies.

"The echidna has never overpopulated," she said. "I think that is a very good lesson that perhaps we need to look at."

See also:

12 Oct 99 | Sheffield 99
22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
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