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How poisonous creatures can help us grow food and treat disease

Research into venom from deadly spiders and snakes is helping scientists develop biopesticides and drugs.
BY Uma Asher |   06-04-2016
Above: Dr. Graham Nicholson, professor of neurotoxicology at the University of Technology Sydney

The German word for poison is “Gift”. And that is what spider venom can be, if we use it scientifically. Dr. Graham Nicholson, neurotoxicologist at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), has spent decades studying how venoms from poisonous spiders, snakes, scorpions and ants affect our nervous system. While many scientists research such toxins to develop life-saving antidotes, Dr. Nicholson does so to develop products such as biopesticides and drugs.

He started out studying pharmacology, in which he has a B.Sc and Ph.D. “My interest was in how the nervous system works and how drugs interact,” he says. “When I started out, in the 1980s, my supervisor had done some work on the venom of the funnel-web spider.” That spurred his interest in spider venom, and his focus on it grew over the years.

His country, Australia, has around 40 species of funnel-web spider. Some of them are among the world’s deadliest, with fangs that can even pierce a fingernail. In one case, a child who was bitten died within 15 minutes.

Above: The Sydney funnel-web spider (Atrax robustus)

So how does one turn spider venom into biopesticide? Spiders and other creatures use their venom to block certain nervous system functions or responses in the species they prey on. Dr. Nicholson explains that the first step in research is to isolate the components of the venom. The next step is to test components on certain insect and vertebrate species. And the third step is to understand exactly how the toxins kill those species.

Research ensures that the pesticide, when it is eventually developed for commercial use, kills the target species (the pest) and does not harm non-target species (including people or animals that would consume the crop.) Biopesticides thus help protect crops and feed more people.

Dr. Nicholson’s research has indeed led to the development of a commercial product. “We succeeded in identifying a group of components, and we have a patent,” he says. “A company was created, it got venture capital, and developed an insecticide product and did field trials. It has approval from the US Environmental Protection Agency, and is looking for distributors.”

Underdeveloped and emerging economies could benefit greatly from using toxins as tools to develop drugs and biopesticides. Dr. Nicholson says there is interest in Mexico, for example, to collect scorpions for an antivenom project. He says some companies and institutes in India work on improving snake antivenoms. For example, he says, the product is raised in horses (venom is injected in small quantities into the horse, and the antivenom is processed from the antibodies in its blood). This is a time-consuming process."

Most work in India is focused on snake antivenom, rather than pesticides. Dr. Nicholson points out that snakes are much harder to catch than scorpions or spiders. With a smile, he adds, “I hate snakes!”

At UTS, Dr. Nicholson not only runs a research lab in the School of Medical and Molecular Biosciences, but also serves as the Science faculty’s Associate Dean for International and External Engagement. “Besides regular degree courses, we offer six-month exchange programs, and also summer programs of two to three weeks for our students to go abroad,” he says.

UTS has a network of 300 partner institutions, of which four are in India (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and IIT Madras). The network makes funding available for research, and facilitates collaboration, exchanges, and visiting professorships. “Joint Ph.Ds from UTS and some other universities are also possible,” says Dr. Nicholson.

He adds that UTS ranks 28th in the world for internationalization. Roughly a quarter of its 40,000 students are from outside Australia. The largest contingent is from China, and India ranks second, he says.

Tuition costs in Australia can be high – around 25,000 to 35,000 Australian dollars a year (roughly Rs 13 lakh to Rs 18 lakh), says Dr. Nicholson. However, he adds, UTS offers merit-based tuition scholarships up to $10,000. He says the university is creating full tuition awards, too, which will be available at the undergraduate level later this year, and from 2018 at the postgraduate level. There are many other scholarship programs, including science scholarships, for which international students are eligible, he says. Besides, he adds, they can work part-time during the semester, and full-time for up to two years after completing their degree.


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