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updated 9/8/2010 5:12:08 PM ET 2010-09-08T21:12:08

In the battle against drug-resistant bacterial infections, researchers have identified two possible, if unlikely, allies: cockroaches and locusts.

Cockroaches, widely considered a public health menace, were documented carrying almost two dozen pathogens that can infect humans by researchers in 1991. Locusts, meanwhile, are associated with a different sort of plague, as their crop-devouring swarms earned them a place in the Bible.

But hidden in the brains and neural tissues of these insects, British researchers have found at least nine molecules that are toxic to bacteria. In fact, the molecules were able to kill more than 90 percent of the meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria in the lab.

Infections by both bacteria can have deadly consequences. MRSA causes serious staph infections that resist treatment and can lead to serious complications, organ failure and even death. Meanwhile, E.coli lives in our intestines, and is mostly harmless, but certain strains can cause an infection linked to kidney failure and even death, according to the National Institutes of Health. Antibiotic resistance has also been documented among certain types of E. coli.

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The bacteria-busting compounds in the pests' brains could lead to a new way to fight off these ultra-resistant pathogens.

"We hope that these molecules could eventually be developed into treatments for E. coli and MRSA infections that are increasingly resistant to current drugs," said study team member Simon Lee, a postgraduate researcher at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham in England.

Because the molecules did not appear to harm human cells in tests run by the researchers, they could potentially lead to new antibiotics without the unwanted side effects of drugs currently in use, Lee said.  

Insects often live in unsanitary conditions, so it is not surprising that they produce their own antimicrobial compounds, Lee said.

Lee presented his work at the Society for General Microbiology's fall meeting in Nottingham this week.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Eight organisms that make you go 'eww'

  • AP

    Skunk. The mere mention of the black and white mammal is enough to make people plug their noses. That's because these creatures are legendary for deterring predators with an oily, foul-smelling spray emitted from glands on either side of their anus. Eww. Some species can shoot the fetid substance more than ten feet and whatever it hits may forever carry the stench. As a defense mechanism, scientists say the stinky spray is quite effective: Most would-be skunk predators stay away unless they have nothing else to eat. Even humans are well trained to keep their distance. When the skunk in this photo got its head stuck in a jar of salad dressing, a police officer cracked it off with a pellet gun fired from 40 feet away. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about seven more organisms that make you go "eww."

  • Slimy hagfish has sex appeal ... for some

    Cabria Colt  /  AP

    What's the sex appeal here? This jawless, nearly blind, eel-shaped fish uses a tooth-barbed tongue to devour rotting flesh on the ocean floor from the inside out. And when a predator such as a whale or seal comes after a hagfish, the creature vomits and secrets a protein that reacts with seawater to form a thick, slimy mucus. Yet thousands of pounds of hagfish are caught every year to supply a booming market in South Korea where they are considered an aphrodisiac. The fish is commonly broiled in sesame oil, sprinkled with salt and accompanied with a shot of liquor.

  • Sea cucumbers jettison internal organs

    Dr. Dwayne Meadows  /  NOAA

    Those who piss off some of the more than 1,100 species of sea cucumbers could be in for an unpleasant surprise: They can violently contract and hurl some of their internal organs out of their anus. While the experience could mentally scar the organ-caked victim for a lifetime, the sea cucumber quickly regenerates the jettisoned body parts. As their name suggests, the cucumber-shaped relatives of sea urchins and star fish live on the ocean floor worldwide where they use suction-cup-like feet to crawl around, and use anywhere from eight to 30 tentacles around their mouths to feed. Not all humans are grossed out by the organisms: They're a delicacy in Asia.

  • Turkey vultures clean up carrion, look ugly

    Tony Gutierrez  /  AP

    If looks could kill, turkey vultures would never starve. The birds' ugliness stems from their bald red heads and featherless necks which allow them to stay clean as they dive in to feast on rotting carcasses. The unsightly birds use a keen sense of smell to locate carrion as they soar overhead, seldom flapping their wings. Some ornithologists think this graceful flight makes up for the bird's otherwise unsavory appearance and habits. Perhaps, but one more gross fact: Turkey vultures defecate on their own legs, using the evaporation to cool down, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

  • Bot fly larvae get under our skin, literally

    KUSA

    Travelers to the tropics of the Americas, beware the bot fly. Especially the human bot fly. Its larvae want to get under your skin. Really. Adult bot flies, which look like bees, lay their eggs on other insects such as mosquitoes. When the host insect lands on a human to feed, the eggs hatch in response to body heat, the larvae drop off and work their way under the skin, often through the hole pierced by the insect. There, the maggots feed ... and grow. At first, human hosts are oblivious to the things, but as the larvae get bigger their movements cause sharp pains. Removal requires suffocation first to ease the grip of the little hooks that keep the larvae anchored in the tissue. The other option: Wait until the flies hatch. The larvae in this picture were removed from the scalp of the gentleman in the background. Ick.

  • Dung beetle: The name says it all

    Warren Little  /  Getty Images file

    For dung beetles, of which there are thousands of species, life is a load of crap. Some of the insects roll up feces into big balls to munch on or make a home for their larvae. Others bury the dung where they find it and do with it as they please. And some just dive right into the steamy piles. Scientists credit the dung processors for everything from keeping farm soils fertile to spreading around seeds packaged in the droppings.

  • Corpse flower looks phallic and stinks

    Image: Casa Rinconada
    AP

    Even though the phallic shape may stir certain thoughts, you wouldn't give this flower to someone with hopes of setting a romantic mood: The bloom of Amorphophallus titanum gives off a stench along the lines of rotting flesh or an outhouse in sweltering heat. The smell repels all but the bravest humans, but attracts pollinators such as flesh-eating beetles and sweat bees. The bloom lasts for less than 72 hours and then the stench dissipates. Amorphophallus titanum, which translates to "giant shapeless phallus," can be found in tropical forests on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and botanic gardens worldwide.

  • World's largest flower is a smelly parasite

    Image: Chankillo
    Jeremy Holden

    The plant that produces the largest — and perhaps most rank-smelling — flower on Earth is a parasite. That means rafflesia plants lack stems, leaves, and roots for capturing sunlight to make food and pull water and other nutrients from the ground. Rather, they suck life from the vines they latch onto in the rainforest floor. The big flowers — some measure three feet across — put off a rotting-flesh stench that attracts pollinators such as carrion flies. Scientists believe the girth may have evolved to boost the scent.

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