Extremely Poisonous Caterpillar Venom Could Possibly Save Lives, Research Says

Museums Victoria

According to researchers, a magnificent looking caterpillar from Australia could possibly be the answer to major medical breakthroughs in both medicines and pest control, all because of its incredibly poisonous venom.

Quite common to the bigger parts of the south-east region of Queensland, the Doratifera vulnerans can be found on the southside of Brisbane in the Toohey Forest Park.

Dr. Andrew Walker at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience has been studying the creature since back in 2017, mostly due to its very “strange biology.”

He explains, “We found one while collecting assassin bugs near Toowoomba and its strange biology and pain-causing venom fascinated me.”

Unlike many other caterpillars that remain incredibly harmless, this one is basically the complete opposite. In fact, Dr. Walker shares that, “It’s binomial name means ‘bearer of gifts of wounds’.”


Similar Venom to That of Spiders

In order to further understand just how venomous it is, Dr. Walker says that his research found that the venom toxins of the said caterpillar have a molecular structure that is very similar to what spiders, bees, wasps and ants produce. And if you have been bitten by one of those creatures, you’ll know just how painful it is.

The research of the caterpillar also happened to find that the caterpillar’s venom is a rich source of bioactive peptides, which could have positive uses in medicine and biotechnology, as well as for scientific tools.Dr. Walker iterates, “Many caterpillars produce pain-inducing venoms and have evolved biological defenses such as irritative hairs, toxins that render them poisonous to eat, spots that mimic snake eyes or spines that inject liquid venoms.” 

“Previously researchers had no idea what was in the venom or how they induce pain,” he adds.


The Venom Is Quite Complex

Dr. Walker also conveys, “We found that the venom is mostly peptides and shows stunning complexity, containing 151 different protein-based toxins from 59 different families.”

His research team managed to synthesize 13 of the peptide toxins, which they used to portray their ‘unique evolutionary trajectory’ that led to the caterpillar eventually being able to produce the said pain-inducing venom.

“We now know the amino acid sequences, or the blueprints, of each protein-based toxin,” shares Dr. Walker.

In addition, he says, “This will enable us to make the toxins and test them in diverse ways.”


Their Venom Can Kill Bacteria

Dr. Walker’s research has managed to produce some peptides in their laboratory, which have shown incredibly high potency, as well as their ability to effectively kill nematode parasites, which are very harmful to livestock. They could potentially work against disease-causing pathogens as well.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, the research  “unlocks a new source of bioactive peptides that may have use in medicine, through an ability to influence biological processes and promote good health,” as explained by Dr. Walker.


Possible Potential for Medicines and Pesticides

While the venom shows large potential to be used for medicines and pesticides, “First, we need to work out what the individual toxins do, to inform us about how they might be sued,” says Dr. Walker.

To understand more about this, see the video below.