Media ReleaseFrom: The University of Queensland
Venom from the giant red bull ant is helping University of Queenslandscientists understand the evolution of animal toxins, which could ultimately lead to new and better treatments for pain.
Researchers from the UQ’s Centre for Advanced Imaging and Institute for Molecular Bioscience completed the first comprehensive study of ant venom, which revealed toxins that stimulate the human nervous system to cause pain.
Dr Eivind Undheim said while the venom of related bees and wasps had been a subject of research for some decades, ant venom had remained largely unstudied.
“Ants are found on every inhabited continent on Earth, and many of us are familiar with the sting their venom can produce,” he said.
“But despite the ubiquity of ants, analysing their venom has been neglected by researchers, likely due to ants’ relatively small size and venom yield, and also to the widespread misconception that they produce a simple acidic venom.
“Our study revealed that the venom of the giant red bull ant is composed of a suite of peptide toxins, and that these are closely related to those found in the venoms of bees and wasps.
“This discovery suggests that these toxins evolved from a common ancestor gene found across the Aculeata, or “stinging wasps”, part of the Hymenoptera order, which comprises ants, bees, wasps and sawflies.”
Giant red bull ants, also known as Myrmecia gulosa, are an Australian species of ant with a notoriously painful sting; the ants in this study were adult workers collected from a single colony near Brisbane in Queensland.
Dr Samuel Robinson said revealing the chemistry behind animal stings could help us better understand our own pain physiology and contribute to the development of new pain treatments.
“Venoms are complex mixtures of molecules that animals use to subjugate prey and defend themselves against predators,” he said.
“Defensive stings in particular are usually intensely painful, and contain toxins that directly target our pain-sensing neurons.
“We can thus use animal venoms to study the human nervous system and learn more about how pain travels through our body and how to develop compounds that block pain.”
The study was published in the scientific journal Science Advances, and was supported by the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.