March 15, 2012
Spider venom could hold the key to protecting Australia’s grain crops from insect pests in the future.
Researchers at The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience are looking at whether it is possible to mimic the insecticidal peptides found in spider venom compounds for use in controlling insects that threaten crops.
If these peptides can be replicated, the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) will pursue production of a biodegradable pesticide based on synthetic toxins.
GRDC Manager for Commercial Farm Technologies, Paul Meibusch (photo, left, with David Shannon), says spiders are the “quintessential insect predator” so it makes sense to explore the reasons why their venom remains so effectively potent.
“It’s about looking at what nature has developed and perfected over many millions of years, and determining whether we can use that to develop a new class of insecticide to protect our important grain crops,” Mr Meibusch said.
“We know that products from spiders have a wide range of insect-killing abilities that prevent insects becoming resistant to spider bites, so researchers are investigating whether we can mimic those peptide compounds to specifically target insect pests.”
Speaking at recent GRDC grains research Updates in the southern cropping region, Mr Meibusch said a four-year project at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, supported by the GRDC, was focusing on the toxic short-chain peptides within spider venom for potential artificial reproduction.
He said the Institute had created the world’s largest “venom library” which catalogues the venom components of almost 300 spider and scorpion species.
“Researchers are isolating peptides from these venoms and running them through a screening mechanism to assess their potential for replication and use in the grains industry.
“The project is still in its infancy but we are hopeful that the outcomes will be of enormous long-term benefit to the cropping industry in Australia and around the world,” Mr Meibusch said.
The development of significant insect pest resistance to groups of agricultural chemicals is driving the exploration of alternative forms of crop protection.
“There are not a lot of insecticide products in the pipeline of commercialisation due to the prohibitive cost of bringing such products to market and the length of time to achieve registration, so it is imperative that we look at other options that are environmentally-friendly and sustainable,” Mr Meibusch said.
Microbial agents for controlling insect pests are among those other options being investigated with funding support from the GRDC, on behalf of the Australian Government and grain growers.
“The concept of using beneficial microbes is really starting to explode around the world,” Mr Meibusch said. “There are already a couple of products on the market – either viruses or fungi – being used for controlling insects.
“We believe this is an area that will continue to expand, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the products themselves are reasonably benign on the environment – they can be quite specific in which insects they control and are often safe for predators.
“This means growers can employ integrated pest management (IPM) techniques much more successfully.
“We also know that a lot of these microbial agents are much more effective at controlling insects than those products that we now have insect resistance to, such as the organophosphates and synthetic pyrethroids.”
Research projects underway are looking at the use of a beneficial fungus for controlling sucking insects such as mirids, thrips and aphids, all of which are becoming an increasing problem in cereal crops.
A virus to control diamondback moth (DBM) – a significant pest of canola crops in parts of southern Australia – is also being investigated.
“This project has just started but if the research progresses well, we hope to be in a position to undertake the first trials in about three years.”