The venom from a caterpillar native to southeast Queensland holds great promise for use in medicines and pest control, say researchers at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience. The Doratifera vulnerans is common in much of southeast Queensland and is regularly found in Toohey Forest Park on the south side of Brisbane.

Dr. Andrew Walker has been researching the striking-looking caterpillar since 2017.

“We found one while collecting killer bugs near Toowoomba, and I was intrigued by its strange biology and pain-causing venom,” said Dr. Walker.

In contrast to the very hungry caterpillar that has enchanted generations of children around the world, this caterpillar is anything but harmless.

Its binomial name means “wound bearer”.

Dr. Andrew Walker, Institute for Molecular Biosciences

Dr. Walker’s research found that the caterpillar contains poisonous toxins with a molecular structure similar to those produced by spiders, wasps, bees, and ants.

Research has also opened up a source of bioactive peptides that can be used in medicine, biotechnology, or as scientific tools.

“Many caterpillars produce pain-inducing toxins and have developed biological defenses, such as

“Until now, the researchers had no idea what was in the poison or how it caused pain.

“We found that the venom is mostly peptide and of amazing complexity, containing 151 different protein-based toxins from 59 different families.”

The research team synthesized 13 of the peptide toxins and used them to show the unique evolutionary path that the caterpillar followed to produce pain-inducing venom.

“We now know the amino acid sequences or the blueprints of any protein-based toxin,” said Dr. Walker.

“We can use it to produce the toxins and test them in a variety of ways.”

Some peptides that were already used in the research of Dr. Walker made in the laboratory showed very high efficacy with the potential to efficiently kill nematode parasites, which are harmful to farm animals, as well as pathogenic pathogens.

“Our research is unlocking a new source of bioactive peptides that could find use in medicine through their ability to affect biological processes and promote good health,” he said.

“First, we need to figure out what each toxin does so we can understand how it could be used.”

The results feed into the work of researchers at CSIRO, the Canadian York University, the Austrian University of Vienna and the Department of Food and Agriculture in the USA.


Journal reference:

Walker, AA, et al. (2021) Production, composition and mode of action of the painful defense toxin produced by a limacodid caterpillar, Doratifera vulnerans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.