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Why ‘venomous’ plant hurts so much

The vicious and venomous stings and bites of Australia’s spiders and snakes is a subject of international fame, but it turns out the plants here also want to do you harm.Researchers at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience have found a new kind of neurotoxin is behind the painful sting delivered by the…

The vicious and venomous stings and bites of Australia’s spiders and snakes is a subject of international fame, but it turns out the plants here also want to do you harm.

Researchers at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience have found a new kind of neurotoxin is behind the painful sting delivered by the Gympie-Gympie stinging tree found throughout Qld and northern NSW.

The newly discovered family of toxins were named gympietides after the tree.

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Scientists already knew about molecules of histamine, acetylcholine and formic acid delivered by the five-millimetre trichomes of the stinging tree’s leaves, but found these didn’t cause the same severe stinging sensation when injected independently.

“The trichomes look like fine hairs, but actually act like hypodermic needles that inject toxins when they make contact with skin,” UQ associate professor Irina Vetter said.

“We were interested in finding out if there were any neurotoxins that could explain these symptoms, and why the Gympie-Gympie can cause such long-lasting pain.”

Unlike relatives in North America and Europe, the Gympie-Gympie tree delivers a sting that can cause pain and irritation for days or even weeks.

Dr Vetter and other researchers now think they know why.

The new neurotoxin proteins discovered in the Gympie-Gympie are more similar to toxins found in spiders and cone snails, folding into molecular structures in a similar way and targeting the same pain receptors.

“This arguably makes the Gympie-Gympie tree a truly ‘venomous’ plant,” Dr Vetter said.

She said the gympietides may permanently change the sodium channels in the sensory neurons.

Now that scientists understand why Gympie-Gympie stings hurt so much, Dr Vetter hopes they can provide better treatment to people who have been stung, or use the neurotoxins as scaffolds for new pain relief medications.

The research was funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council and has now been published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.

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