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Meet the hairy Brisbane caterpillar helping to unlock medical secrets

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A very hairy caterpillar living in Brisbane suburbia is being probed for its disease-fighting potential.

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The venom of a caterpillar native to south east Queensland is being investigated by University of Queensland researchers for its potential as a key ingredient in medicines and pest control.

Commonly found in Toohey Forest on Brisbane’s southside, the Doratifera vulnerans caterpillar is loaded with venomous toxins with a molecular structure similar to those produced by spiders, wasps, bees and ants.

Fittingly, its name translates to ‘bearer of gifts of wounds’, although the toxin it harbours may prove less than sinister if the UQ scientists can unlock its benefits for human medicine.

Dr Andrew Walker from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience has been researching the caterpillar since 2017.

“Many caterpillars produce pain-inducing venoms and have evolved biological defences such as irritative hairs, toxins that render them poisonous to eat, spots that mimic snake eyes or spines that inject liquid venoms,” Walker said.

“Previously researchers had no idea what was in the venom or how they induce pain.

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

The researcher team synthesised 13 of the peptide toxins and used them to show the unique evolutionary trajectory the caterpillar followed to produce pain-inducing venom.

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

“This will enable us to make the toxins and test them in diverse ways.”

Some peptides already produced in the laboratory as part of Walker’s research showed very high potency, with potential to efficiently kill nematode parasites that are harmful to livestock, as well as disease-causing pathogens.

“Our research unlocks a novel source of bioactive peptides that may have use in medicine, through an ability to influence biological processes and promote good health,” he said.

“First, we need to work out what the individual toxins do, to inform us about how they might be used.”

The findings incorporate work from researchers at the CSIRO, Canada’s York University, Austria’s University of Vienna and the Department of Food and Agriculture in the US.

The research is published in the National Academy of Sciences in the US.

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