New research at USC Australia will use arachnid venoms to find pesticides that will deter pests without harming bees.
Dr Volker Herzig will lead the research to protect crops by finding toxins that target destructive pests such as caterpillars.
“Caterpillars are a big problem in agriculture, as they can consume a lot of plant matter in a short period of time,” Dr Herzig said.
The goal will be to find and isolate the toxin that has a desired effect, such as paralysis or death in caterpillars that eat the crops, while protecting the bees that pollinate them.
“The challenge will be to find the toxin that targets specific pest insects, because there are over a million different species in the world, but also to protect bees which are so important for food production,” Dr Herzig said.
“You can get more than 3000 peptides from a single funnel-web spider venom, so it’s a super complex task.
“If you are lucky, you have a few microlitres of the venom, and each toxin is available in only microgram amounts, so you are looking for just one of these molecules in a very small venom sample.”
Dr Herzig will draw on global collaborators and a collection of more than 700 different venoms from arachnids, including spiders and scorpions.
“Commercial suppliers offer only about 20 per cent of the arachnid venoms in my collection, which means that unless you are keen to milk those spiders and scorpions yourself, 80 per cent of these venoms you can only obtain from our collection.”
The project will target the small hive beetle and varroa mites, which are both important parasites of honeybees.
Previous work by Dr Herzig has used spider venoms to identify opportunities for human therapeutics and molecular research tools.