Using Scorpion Venum to Design Non-hazardous Insecticides

Milking a ScorpionIn a study supported by the BARD Fund, collaborative teams of US and Israeli scientists have made great progress toward developing a new class of insecticides that are highly effective, not harmful to animals and humans, and environmentally friendly; research that has generated much interest in the scientific community worldwide.

Insect resistance to commonly used chemical insecticides is of great concern to farmers worldwide. Most alarming, the massive use of insecticides in recent decades has led to an ever-growing insect resistance to these agents. Moreover, as farmers constantly raise the amount of insecticides used in order to overcome insect resistance, they are inevitably strengthening it, as well as increasing pollution and human and animal health risks. There is, therefore, an urgent need for a new class of insecticides that are both efficient and not harmful to human beings and the environment.

For almost two decades now, the BARD Fund has been supporting an interdisciplinary group of pharmacologists, electrophysiologists, and molecular and structural biologists from Israel and the USA that are working together to develop novel, non-hazardous insecticides that are based on peptide neurotoxins derived from arthropods, sea anemones, and venomous cone snails. In a similar manner to that of the most commonly used insecticides today, these natural toxins instantaneously paralyze the insect by perturbing the function of voltage-gated sodium channels (i.e., membrane-embedded protein complexes that play a crucial role in the transfer of nerve impulses) in its nervous system. The great advantage of these natural toxins is that they have been found to be highly selective to insect sodium channels; therefore, in addition to their highly lethal potential, their usage will minimize the danger to human and animal health.

The group started by analyzing the chemical composition and mode of action of scorpion venom. They have since made great strides in their study of this and other toxins: they have successfully characterized the bioactive surface, molecular features, and mode of action of numerous natural peptide neurotoxins. They have further obtained information regarding the molecular and structural features of the toxins that dictate insect selectivity. The group has also identified the sites on the sodium channel that these toxins target. The scientists plan to use this knowledge to design and synthesize novel chemical insecticides that mimic the action of these natural neurotoxins.

Interestingly, the scientists have found that some of the examined toxins are synergic with other toxins, as well as with conventional chemical insecticides. This insight may lead to the design of highly effective synergic insecticides that require relatively small quantities of the conventional neurotoxins, thereby reducing the selective pressure that is increasing insect resistance to conventional toxins.

The Core Group of Scientists:

  • Michael Gurevitz and Dalia Gordon, Tel Aviv University, Department of Plant Sciences, Israel
  • Michael E. Adams, University of California Riverside, Department of Entomology and Neuroscience, CA, USA
  • Roland G. Kallen, University of Pennsylvania, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, School of Medicine, PA, USA
  • Ke Dong, Michigan State University, Department of Entomology & Center for Neuroscience, MI, USA
  • William A. Catterall, University of Washington, Department of Pharmacology, School of Medicine, WA, USA