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Scientists are researching ant venom to find out more about pain

Posted September 13, 2018

Venom has a bad reputation, because, well, it kills people. We are terrified of venomous creatures and try to memorize what we should do if such bite does happen. However, for scientists venom sometimes becomes a source of inspiration – researchers from University of Queensland are looking into the venom of the giant red bull ants thinking it could lead to better treatments for pain.

The venom of bull ants is actually closely related to the venom of bees and wasps. Image credit: Peter bertok via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

If a bull ant stings you, you will notice – it causes intense pain. But why? Scientists think that understanding how the venom of the giant red bull ants stimulates the human nervous system to cause pain could actually lead to better pain medication. In fact, for this reason ants and wasps have been in scientific research for decades, because their venom somehow finds its way to our nervous system and affects it greatly. Ants are particularly interesting, because they live on every inhabited continent on Earth. Despite this fact, they’ve been ignored by the scientific community.

The problem is that ants are small. This means that they do not produce a lot of venom, which makes the research difficult. Furthermore, there is a widespread belief that ant venom is simple acidic venom, which is not actually true. Scientists researched the venom of bull ants and found that it consists of a suite of peptide toxins and they are not much different from those found in the venoms of bees and wasps. And that is no coincidence – the venom most likely developed in a common ancestor gene found across the Aculeata, which is a part of the Hymenoptera order, which includes ants, bees, wasps and sawflies. Myrmecia gulosa, the giant red bull ants that are quite common in Australia, were collected from a single colony for this study.

The venom itself is unlikely to ever become a part of pain medication. However, it is capable of inflicting a lot of stinging pain. Knowing how does it do that may improve our understanding of the pain itself. Dr Samuel Robinson, one of the authors of the study, said: “Defensive stings in particular are usually intensely painful, and contain toxins that directly target our pain-sensing neurons. That means we can use animal venoms to study the human nervous system and learn more about how pain travels through the body and how to develop compounds that block it”.

Animals evolved their venoms in order to defend themselves and to attack as needed. They have to be painful to deter the enemy or deadly to kill the pray. Researching the venom could help us understand how the pain signals are created, how they travel and how they could be blocked. However, in some other cases venoms do actually become the basis for medicine.

Source: University of Queensland

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