Neon-green lizard blood might be a key tool for fighting malaria

The blood of this lizard is a color you’ve likely only seen in movies and cartoons.
The blood of this lizard is a color you’ve likely only seen in movies and cartoons.
Image: Reuters photo courtesy of Louisiana State University
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It sounds like the sort of magic reserved for comic books: neon-green blood from a group of geographically isolated lizards could wind up being a key to curing a vicious disease.

That scenario might very well transcend the imagination and become a reality, according to a study published this week in the journal Science Advances. A team of researchers from Louisiana State University say they’ve discovered that a small number of lizard species in New Guinea have green blood—tinted by bile pigment—that may pack a toxic punch strong enough to wipe out malaria parasites. The study offers a new look into and a better basis of understanding of what the green blood does for the lizards.

The lizards all belong to the genus Prasinohaema, which are skinks that have green blood. That the creatures can even stay alive was a surprise to the researchers, who noted that the levels of green bile floating through their veins is 40 times higher than what would be a lethal concentration in humans. It’s the highest concentration of green bile—an alkaline fluid that, in small amounts, aids digestion—yet found in the animal kingdom.

The odd trait still isn’t totally understood, but is believed to have emerged independently in different lizards on the island—the researchers found six species with green blood, two of which are new to science. That indicates the green bile-filled blood is likely an adaptive quality to ward off diseases, and could have potential for use in human health care. “Understanding the underlying physiological changes…may translate to non-traditional approaches to specific health problems,” the researchers said in a press release.

As the researchers note, the bile pigment has shown in lab settings to be toxic to malaria parasites. Malaria is a non-contagious often transmitted by mosquitos, that typically causes flu-like symptoms, and can be fatal in some cases. There are already drugs used to combat malaria, but they also come with the potential for an array of side effects that include vomiting, fever, and balance issues, among other things. A new treatment option, if developed, could wind up being safer and more effective. And if that new option winds up coming from the green blood of far-flung island lizards, it could be pretty cool, too.