Llamas: Nature's Cute & Fluffy Crusaders Against Bioterrorism

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

Push away those vile stereotypes. Llamas are more than mere walking sweaters or Internet meme fodder. For one thing, they jump high enough to warrant a competitive circuit. They also make excellent guard animals for smaller beasts, such as alpaca or sheep. (No, really. Guard llamas. My aunt and uncle have one on their highly productive alpaca farm*.) Plus, they're also supposed to make a pretty good meat source. Llama meat was the first jerky; or charqui, as the Inca called it.

Back in 2006, scientists working with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory announced another area of llama expertise: Fighting in the War on Terror.

Llama blood may one day be able to help soldiers, scientists and city officials set up an early-warning system against the tiniest weapons of terror–biological agents like anthrax and smallpox. Authorities have long worried that, were these diseases to get loose, it would be difficult to know anything was wrong until innocent people started dying. Llama blood might provide a better detection method.

How? Antibodies, the tiny molecules that float around in the bloodstreams of people and almost all animals. Antibodies keep a sort of "memory" of all the diseases, allergens and other foreign invaders your body has come into contact with. If the same infiltrator shows up again, the antibodies can match it up with their stored records and immediately know how to fight it.

For a while now, scientists have used genetically altered antibodies to help ID and treat specific diseases. But these techniques always ran into a common problem: Antibodies were just too delicate to be of much use outside a lab or hospital setting. Enter the llama.

According to news stories about the research, llamas have extraordinarily tough and hardy antibodies, capable of sustaining exposure to temperatures as high as 200 degrees F. This discovery gave the researchers the idea to develop sensors, based on llama antibodies, that could be distributed to soldiers in a war, or around cities back home. Modified to be specifically on the lookout for likely-to-be-weaponized diseases, these sensors could pick up signs of a biochemical attack before victims started arriving at the hospital.

I wrote about this research in Be Amazing, back in early 2007. Since then, I haven't seen much more on whether or not these efforts have been successful. If the Internet Hivemind has any input or updates, I'd love to hear about them.

Michael Rogalski did not harm any llamas in the making of this illustration.

*Production on alpaca farm measured in bales of cuteness.