Environment Institute

Australian researchers have discovered remarkable evolutionary changes to insulin regulation in two of the nation’s most iconic native animal species – the platypus and the echidna – which could pave the way for new treatments for type 2 diabetes in humans.

The findings, now published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, reveal that the same hormone produced in the gut of the platypus to regulate blood glucose is also surprisingly produced in their venom.

The research is led by Professor Frank Grutzner at the University of Adelaide and Associate Professor Briony Forbes at Flinders University.

The hormone, known as glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), is normally secreted in the gut of both humans and animals, stimulating the release of insulin to lower blood glucose.

But GLP-1 typically degrades within minutes.

In people with type 2 diabetes, the short stimulus triggered by GLP-1 isn’t sufficient to maintain a proper blood sugar balance. As a result, medication that includes a longer lasting form of the hormone is needed to help provide an extended release of insulin.

“Our research team has discovered that monotremes – our iconic platypus and echidna – have evolved changes in the hormone GLP-1 that make it resistant to the rapid degradation normally seen in humans,” says co-lead author Professor Frank Grutzner, from the University of Adelaide’s School of Biological Sciences and the Robinson Research Institute.

“We’ve found that GLP-1 is degraded in monotremes by a completely different mechanism. Further analysis of the genetics of monotremes reveals that there seems to be a kind of molecular warfare going on between the function of GLP-1, which is produced in the gut but surprisingly also in their venom,” he says.

The platypus produces a powerful venom during breeding season, which is used in competition among males for females.

“We’ve discovered conflicting functions of GLP-1 in the platypus: in the gut as a regulator of blood glucose, and in venom to fend off other platypus males during breeding season. This tug of war between the different functions has resulted in dramatic changes in the GLP-1 system,” says co-lead author Associate Professor Briony Forbes, from Flinders University’s School of Medicine.

“The function in venom has most likely triggered the evolution of a stable form of GLP-1 in monotremes. Excitingly, stable GLP-1 molecules are highly desirable as potential type 2 diabetes treatments,” she says.

Professor Grutzner says: “This is an amazing example of how millions of years of evolution can shape molecules and optimise their function.

“These findings have the potential to inform diabetes treatment, one of our greatest health challenges, although exactly how we can convert this finding into a treatment will need to be the subject of future research.”

GLP-1 has also been discovered in the venom of echidnas. But while the platypus has spurs on its hind limbs for delivering a large amount of venom to its opponent, there is no such spur on echidnas.

“The lack of a spur on echidnas remains an evolutionary mystery, but the fact that both platypus and echidnas have evolved the same long-lasting form of the hormone GLP-1 is in itself a very exciting finding,” Professor Grutzner says.

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pangolinThis is a guest post by Sarah Heinrich.

Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are the most heavily trafficked wild mammal in the world, with over one million illegally traded individuals in the last decade alone. Eight species of this shy mammal exist: four in Asia and four in Africa. Almost every part of their body is used for different traditional, culinary, and decorative purposes. Pangolin scales are believed to have healing properties in traditional medicines, their meat is a delicacy in restaurants and their consumption is considered a symbol of status, and their leather has been highly sought after, particularly for American cowboy boots.

Increasing affluence (particularly in Asia and Africa) has resulted in more people being able to afford pangolin products, and the animal has been driven to the edge of extinction in various parts of its global range. Two of the Asian species, the Sunda and the Chinese pangolin, are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Redlist of threatened species, while the remaining two Asian species, the Philippine and the Indian pangolin, are listed as Endangered. All four African species are listed as Vulnerable, but they are increasingly threatened and increasing numbers of African pangolins have been observed being trafficked from Africa to Asia in recent years to supply the Asian market.

All eight pangolin species were previously listed in Appendix II in CITES and a zero export quota for all four wild caught Asian species traded for primarily commercial purposes had been established in 2000. A new decision was agreed upon at the CoP17, and in the future all eight pangolin species will be listed in Appendix I, offering them far greater and much needed protection. Almost all international trade will thus be prohibited.

In a recent contribution on pangolin trade, we analysed CITES trade of all eight pangolin species from 1977 – 2014. The CITES trade database provides the most complete dataset for trade in wildlife species around the globe. In ‘Where did all the pangolins go? International CITES trade in pangolin species’ we found that CITES trade in Asian pangolin species decreased through time, whilst trade in African species increased post-2000, after the establishment of the zero export quota. Despite this quota for all wild sourced Asian species, they were still continued to be traded after the year 2000. The results confirm a worrying trend that had formerly only been observed in illegal trafficking: African pangolins in trade increasingly replace the trade of the dwindling Asian pangolin populations, and African pangolins are being traded in increasing numbers.

Furthermore, we investigated the underlying trade networks and identified an increasingly complex international network through time, with the United States of America (US) being the dominant player in the global pangolin trade that was reported to CITES. The US was the most frequent trade country throughout the entire period and was the greatest importer of pangolins, and their products: measured both in volume as well as frequency. While it is believed that demand is predominantly originating from Asian countries, within the pangolin ranges, we could show that demand is also coming from non-range countries, especially the US, but also Japan and certain European countries. These new insights highlight the need for further research into pangolin trade, especially into demand arising from both range- and non-range countries.

The latest decision to list pangolins in Appendix I is crucial for their conservation, and provides them with a new hope for the future. Unfortunately this will not stop the illegal trade in pangolins, which is still threatening their survival. Further investigations into the trafficking of pangolins are now desperately needed, especially in regards to frequently used trade routes and re-distribution network hotspots, to assist law enforcement in directing their efforts more effectively. The fight to save the pangolin therefore continues.

The world’s largest wildlife trade meeting in history took place in Johannesburg, South Africa from September 24th to October 5th, 2016. Representatives from over 180 countries participated in the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) 17th Conference of Parties (CoP17). CITES regulates the legal trade in over 35,000 species of animals and plants, which are listed in one of three Appendices. Every three years all member countries (‘Parties’) meet to discuss, review and amend international regulations for the trade in CITES listed species. In this year’s meeting, the listings of close to 500 species were reviewed, and one of the notable beneficiaries was the fairly unknown pangolin.


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Timor-Leste is getting a conservation boost with plans for a marine conservation program.

In collaboration with the Centre for Applied Conservation Science at the University of Adelaide, Conservation International conducted a scoping study of cetaceans in Timor-Leste. In five days, 10 whale and dolphin species were recorded. Over 2,200 individuals were sighted. Local guides, fishermen, conservation groups and government contributed to a series of workshops to help develop a marine conservation program for Timor-Leste.

Watch the video for some incredible footage of Timor-Leste.

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As temperatures on Earth rise, it can be hard to predict how the environment will adapt. But thanks to our researchers, we have a little more insight into the adaptation mechanisms of plants. Dr Cesca McInerney and her former PhD student Allison Baczynsk have been analysing 56million year old plant and animal fossils from the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal […]

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Field trips are an essential part of research for many environmental scientists. But what happens on tour, doesn’t always stay on tour. Dr John Tibby shares an inside look from his latest trip to Fraser Island. Tibby and his team are looking to the past to understand just how bad droughts can get. His field trip […]

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The illegal reptile trade in Australia, including venomous snakes, could put our wildlife, the environment and human lives at risk, a new study has found. University of Adelaide researchers, supported by the Invasive Animals Co-operative Research Centre, have developed a model of the likelihood of establishment of alien species of snakes and other reptiles if […]

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A group of conservation scientists and policy makers led by University of Adelaide researchers are calling for global action to combat the illegal timber trade. They say governments and organisations responsible for protecting wildlife and forests around the world and certification schemes need to “catch up with the science” and put in place policies and […]

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Natural disasters are expensive. Bushfires, heatwaves, floods and more cost Australians $6billion every year, a cost that is set to skyrocket to $35billion by the year 2050. The risk from natural disasters is immense and more research is needed to help policy makers plan for the future. Enter Holger Maier. Professor Holger Maier is a […]

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A new comprehensive study of Australian natural hazards paints a picture of increasing heatwaves and extreme bushfires as this century progresses, but with much more uncertainty about the future of storms and rainfall. Published today (Tuesday 8 November) in a special issue of the international journal Climatic Change, the study documents the historical record and projected […]

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Governments from around the world will descend in Marrakech this week for the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP 22) to tackle the issue of climate change. The Marrakech Climate Change Conference brings together the world’s governing bodies to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change. The central focus of the conference is […]

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