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Spider Venom Could Yield Eco-Friendly Insecticides

Biochemist Glenn King is searching for an alternative to chemical pesticides. King's research on insect-specific neurotoxins focuses on one the world's most efficient insect predators -- spiders. The Blue Mountains funnel-web spider (Hadronyche versuta) -- a large Australian spider with a bite that is deadly to humans and insects -- is an ideal source of venom for King's research. The spider "cooperates" by rearing up in a fighting stance when provoked, making it relatively easy for researchers to aspirate venom directly from its fangs. Since Australian funnel-web spiders can live for more than five years in captivity, a small group of these spiders yields plenty of toxins for King's chemical analysis.

Funnel-web spider venom is a complex brew of more than 100 chemical compounds, most of which are toxic to insects, but not vertebrates. King is studying the molecular structures of the toxins that selectively target the nervous systems of insects to understand the toxins' mechanism of action at the cellular level. Because these toxins do not affect the mammalian nervous system, it may be possible to use them to create environmentally friendly insecticides.

Insect pests destroy about 25 percent of the world's crops each year, despite the extensive application of chemical insecticides since World War II. The initial effectiveness of DDT in agricultural use and malaria eradication programs led many to view chemical insecticides as a panacea. But widespread use of the chemicals has boosted insects' resistance, even to increased dosages, while the environmental damage and human health risks associated with the chemicals have increased, according to King.

"We have a very good reason to look for a safer, nontoxic, and more efficient pesticide. More than a billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed in the U.S. every year. That's four pounds per person. A millionth of a pound can sometimes be deadly. And the chemical toxins that currently end up in the foo
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Source:National Science Foundation


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