Spider venom to be tested for pesticide potential

Boffins want to create artificial spider peptides to eliminate crop-eating bugs

Australia's Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) has asked researchers to replicate peptides, the nastiest bits of spider venom, in the hope they make pesticides to which insects do not develop resistance.

“We know that products from spiders have a wide range of insect-killing abilities that prevent insects becoming resistant to spider bites, so researchers are investigating whether we can mimic those peptide compounds to specifically target insect pests,” said Paul Meibusch, GRDC's Manager for Commercial Farm Technologies.

“It’s about looking at what nature has developed and perfected over many millions of years, and determining whether we can use that to develop a new class of insecticide to protect our important grain crops.”

To figure out if the peptides can be replicated (it's rather hard to milk spiders for their venom), GRDC has hooked up with the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience which houses a venom library that has catalogued venom from 300 spider and scorpion species. The Institute already conducts research into many possible applications for venom, including medical uses.

The research is motivated by the decreasing efficacy of conventional pesticides, as insects are developing greater resistances to many on the market. GRDC therefore wants to accelerate development of alternatives and given that insects seem not to have evolved resistance to spider bites the eight-legged creatures seem an ideal research candidate.

“The concept of using beneficial microbes is really starting to explode around the world,” Meibusch said. “There are already a couple of products on the market – either viruses or fungi – being used for controlling insects.

“We believe this is an area that will continue to expand, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the products themselves are reasonably benign on the environment – they can be quite specific in which insects they control and are often safe for predators.“

Australia has, infamously, been down this road before. The cane toad was introduced to stop beetles munching through sugar cane crops. Since the arrival of just 102 toads in 1935 the species has spread over much of northern Australia and become a signifcant pest in it's own right. ®

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