How a toxin from an Australian desert spider is helping design eco-friendly insecticides

Glenn King from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience. Image: Supplied.

A toxin from the desert bush spider is helping scientists create bee-friendly insecticides and new treatments for health conditions.

Researchers from the University of Queensland and Princeton University used the potent toxin—Dc1a—to investigate the molecular structure of sodium channels, which play important roles in the nervous system of humans and insects.

Glenn King from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience says you need to know how to turn sodium channels on and off at the atomic level to be able design better drugs and insecticides.

Humans have nine sodium channels, each with different functions. One type plays a central role in the perception of pain, another is essential to the function of the skeletal muscles we use for movement, and a third channel is used by the nerves that control heart rhythm.

“If you design a drug to target one sodium channel to block pain, you have to ensure it won’t hit the others and cause paralysis or heart failure,” says Professor King.

“And when designing insecticides, it’s critical that chemicals that disrupt sodium channels in pest insects don’t affect those found in humans or ecologically important insects such as bees.”

The latest research provides a foundation for designing ecofriendly insecticides that kill pest insects but don’t harm bees, humans or pets.

There is also scope for designing drugs to selectively target certain human sodium channels, which could lead to new treatments for conditions such as chronic pain, epilepsy and heart arrhythmia.

The research was published in Science and funded by organisations included the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council.

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