Aussie caterpillar’s venom has medicinal possibilities

The Doratifera vulnerans caterpillar. (Credit: Fir0002/Wikimedia Commons)

The venom of a caterpillar native to South East Queensland in Australia shows promise for use in medicines and pest control, researchers say.

The Doratifera vulnerans is common to large parts of Queensland’s southeast and is routinely found in Toohey Forest Park on Brisbane’s south side.

Andrew Walker, from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, has researched the striking looking caterpillar since 2017.

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

Unlike The Very Hungry Caterpillar that charmed generations of children around the world, this caterpillar is far from harmless. “Its binomial name means ‘bearer of gifts of wounds’,” Walker says.

The caterpillar has venom toxins with a molecular structure similar to those produced by spiders, wasps, bees, and ants, his research shows. The work also unlocked a source of bioactive peptides that may have uses in medicine, biotechnology, or as scientific tools.

“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,” Walker says.

“Previously researchers had no idea what was in the venom or how they induce pain. We found that the venom is mostly peptides and shows stunning complexity, containing 151 different protein-based toxins from 59 different families.”

The researcher team synthesized 13 of the peptide toxins and used them to show the unique evolutionary trajectory the caterpillar followed to produce pain-inducing venom.

“We now know the amino acid sequences, or the blueprints, of each protein-based toxin. This will enable us to make the toxins and test them in diverse ways.”

Some peptides already produced in the laboratory as part of Walker’s research showed very high potency, with potential to efficiently kill nematode parasites that are harmful to livestock, as well as disease-causing pathogens.

“Our research unlocks a novel source of bioactive peptides that may have use in medicine, through an ability to influence biological processes and promote good health,” Walker says. “First, we need to work out what the individual toxins do, to inform us about how they might be used.”

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Walker is a researcher in the lab of Professor Glenn King who studies venoms-based drug discovery. Additional coauthors are from York University in Canada, the University of Vienna, and the US Department of Food and Agriculture.

Source: University of Queensland