ARC-supported researchers from The University of Queensland’s Centre for Advanced Imaging and Institute for Molecular Bioscience have completed the first comprehensive study of ant venom, revealing toxins that stimulate the human nervous system to cause pain.

ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) recipient, Dr Eivind Undheim, said the venom of bees and wasps has been a subject of research for some decades, but there had been little research on ant venom.

The study has revealed that the venom of the giant red bull ant—an Australian species with a notoriously painful sting—is composed of a suite of peptide toxins, and that these are closely related to those found in the venoms of bees and wasps. This discovery suggests these toxins evolved from a common ancestor gene found across the Aculeata, or ‘stinging wasps.’

By studying how these toxins stimulate human pain-sensing neurons, they are gaining a new understanding of how pain travels through the body, and how to develop compounds that block it.

Characterising the chemistry of the toxins in animal venoms can lead to better treatments for pain.

Image: The giant red bull ant, Myrmecia gulosa.
Credit: Dr Eivind Undheim and Dr Samuel Robinson.