Venom can have a range of effects, from causing pain and mild irritation to paralysis or even death. Ants use venom for two general purposes: to subdue prey or to protect themselves from predators. Any predator that is stung by an ant and has a painful reaction that lasts for days may think twice before trying to disturb an ant’s nest again. New research from the University of Queensland in Australia characterizes one component of giant red bull ant venom that causes long lasting sensitivity to touch and heat in mammals and may reveal a new aspect of how pain works in humans.
First, the authors discovered that one component of ant venom, a protein dubbed Mg1a, has a structure that is very similar to a protein called epidermal growth factor or EGF. Many organisms, from insects to humans, make EGF and it is important for different biological functions. The scientists found that the ant venom protein Mg1a is more like the EGF found in mammals than the EGF found in other insects. This suggests that Mg1a targets EGF receptors in mammals. The authors prove this by showing that Mg1a activates the mammalian EGF receptor but does not have any effect on other insect species. When injected into mice, Mg1a caused increased sensitivity for up to 4 days. Together with other components of the venom that cause immediate pain, the long-lasting effects of Mg1a may deter predators from preying on ants.
Because venom is exquisitely crafted to target certain biological processes, components of venom can often be harnessed and developed into medical treatments. The discovery of Mg1a shows that EGF proteins have a largely unexplored role in pain in mammals and may lead to a better understanding of pain and how to treat it.
This study was a collaborative effort led by David Eagles and Dr. Samuel Robinson at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience in the University of Queensland, Australia.
Managing Correspondent: Gemma Johnson
Press Articles: “In a Wild Turn of Events, Bull Ant Venom Could Treat Long-Term Pain”, Gizmodo,
“Bull ant evolves new way to target pain”, ScienceDaily
Original Journal Article: “A peptide toxin in ant venom mimics vertebrate EGF-like hormones to cause long-lasting hypersensitivity in mammals”, PNAS
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