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Scientists hope to use the mucus of the bootlace worm to create new potent insecticides

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Posted March 25, 2018

What is the longest animal in the world? You would probably guess that the blue whale should be the longest, since it is the heaviest. However, it is not true. The blue whale can grow as long as 24 meters, but the bootlace worm can grow to be as long as 55 meters long. Now scientists from the University of Queensland have discovered that protein neurotoxins from these extraordinary long worms could be used as pesticides.

The bootlace worm (Lineus longissimus) has an interesting defence mechanism – it releases toxic mucus, which paralyses the attacker. Image credit: Adriaan Gittenberger & Cor Schipper via Wikimedia(CC BY 3.0)

Bootlace worms are truly incredible. Their incredible length makes them very interesting, but scientists have neglected researching their chemistry. There are toxins in its body, which could have a large variety of commercial applications. Various proteins from other animals, such as marine snails, snakes and spiders, have found application in agriculture, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Meanwhile venom of scorpions and some snakes also gets turned into drugs. Scientists now think that potent protein neurotoxins from bootlace worms could also be used in agriculture.

When bootlace worm is provoked, it launches an interesting defence mechanism – it releases mucus, which contains high concentration of tetrodotoxin, which is now identified as nemertide α-1. Scientists say that it has a huge potential to be used as insecticidal toxin. They collected a large amount of the mucus form the bootlace worms and investigated its chemical contents and properties. When the bootlace worm releases the mucus, potential predators become paralysed. In most instances this stops the attack and the bootlace worm has time to retreat so safety. It actually could be an essential part of how they manage to grow that long. Interestingly, a similar protein is found in venomous spiders.

Some venomous spiders use a similar tetrodotoxin as α-1, but the one from the bootlace worm is about three times stronger. How can we make use of it? Scientists say that this insecticide causes paralysis and death in green crabs and juvenile cockroaches. Dr Johan Rosengren, one of the authors of the study, said: “We also showed that the isolated toxin prevents the inactivation of invertebrate sodium channels in three distinct insect species: the German cockroach, the common fruit fly and the varroa mite”.

Obviously, a lot remains to be done until some kind of commercial product is developed. But in the near future a potent substance could be created to control insect pests that destroy crops and spread disease. It is interesting that it is going to come from the longest animal on the planet.

 

Source: University of Queensland

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