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Caterpillar venom could be used to make medicine

Kamahl Cogdon, June 28, 2021 7:00PM Kids News

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The venom contained in the spikes of the caterpillar of the mottled cup moth could be used to make medicines and pest control. Picture: Jiayi Jin, University of Queensland media_cameraThe venom contained in the spikes of the caterpillar of the mottled cup moth could be used to make medicines and pest control. Picture: Jiayi Jin, University of Queensland

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The venom of a common Australian caterpillar could be used to fight diseases in humans and livestock, new research has found.

University of Queensland researchers have discovered the caterpillars of the mottled cup moth, commonly found in eastern Australia, have a complex* venom that could be used to make medicines and pest control.

The study’s lead researcher Dr Andrew Walker said the venom of the Doratifera vulnerans caterpillar, whose scientific name means “bearer of the gifts of wounds”, was made up of 151 toxins*, some of which had the potential to be used to kill parasites* and bacteria* that cause disease.

“Previously researchers had no idea what was in the venom or how they induce pain,” Dr Walker said.

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

media_cameraA close-up of the venomous spines of the caterpillar of the mottled cup moth. Picture: Jiayi Jin, University of Queensland

The research team made 13 of the peptides in the laboratory, with some showing very high power and the potential to kill infections in humans.

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also found the peptides could possibly kill a parasite that is harmful to livestock.

Dr Walker said venoms used by animals as defences against predators were previously thought to be simple in composition*.

The cup moth caterpillar, which is typically green, red or brown in appearance, has clusters of stinging spines which are displayed when disturbed.

Caterpillars of the mottled cup moth

The spines, containing a venom similar to spiders, wasps, bees and ants, are thought to have evolved as a defence against predation* by birds and other animals.

Dr Walker said the caterpillar tucked away its spines when it didn’t need them, probably to preserve its venom.

But if the caterpillar was attacked by a predator or even if someone lightly brushed against it, the spines injected liquid venom that caused a sharp or burning pain similar to a bee sting.

GLOSSARY

  • complex: having many different and connected parts, complicated
  • toxins: poisons
  • parasites: organisms that live on or in another organism, feeding from it
  • bacteria: tiny organisms that are also called germs
  • peptides: chains of amino acids, which are like a living thing’s chemical building blocks
  • complexity: being complex, complicated
  • protein: a substance made up of chains of amino acids
  • composition: the way something is made up
  • predation: the act of one animal preying on another

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. Which moth are these caterpillars from?
  2. Where are these moths and caterpillars found?
  3. How many toxins were found in the caterpillar’s venom?
  4. How does the caterpillar inject its venom?
  5. Which university carried out the research?

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CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Medicinal Potion
Who would’ve thought the venom from a caterpillar could possibly save people and animals from certain infections and diseases!

Work with a partner and come up with a potion of mixed ingredients that could be made into medicine to fix a certain medical ailment. It could be something like getting rid of warts, or something more serious like killing cancer cells. You can be as creative as you like.

Write down your list of ingredients, state where they come from, and what your concoction can be used to fix.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and creative thinking, Personal and social

2. Extension
What other insects or animals do you think could contain an important ingredient that we could use for scientific or medicinal purposes?

Do you think there is a cure for terminal illnesses such as cancer, hidden away in one of these creatures?

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Science, Critical and creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY

Extra Reading in animals