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Tuesday, July 13, 1999 Published at 18:53 GMT 19:53 UK


Who'd kiss a giraffe?

Giraffes eat thorny plants

The secret to new medical treatments for humans could be found on the wet, slobbery tongue of the giraffe.

Professor Christopher Viney is investigating the molecular structure of giraffe saliva in research he hopes will further our understanding of human mucus and its role in the digestive process.

Mucus is active in a range of human functions and problems, including stomach ulcers and the potentially fatal disease cystic fibrosis.

Giraffe mucus helps the animal to swallow the thorny plants that it eats in its natural environment in the African bush.

Professor Viney, from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, said: "By studying the way mucus helps giraffes eat dry and spiky food, or allows slugs to glide over rough ground or even razor blades, we can build a picture of the molecular structure which enables those animals to perform those functions."

Professor Viney gets his saliva from a giraffe called Jade at Edinburgh Zoo

The scientist uses a jam jar with a lump of fruit in the bottom. When the animal sticks its 45-centimetre (18-inch) tongue into the jar, it leaves its dribble behind. Professor Viney wants to share his results with medical researchers. He hopes his findings will add to our understanding of human conditions and contribute to new treatments for them.

Professor Viney, who has previously investigated mucus from slugs and pigs stomachs, decided on his latest research target while reading a book to his four-year-old daughter Christine.

He said: "I was reading to her about giraffes and the fact that their tongue is lubricated with thick mucus and I decided to look into it."

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