Evolution, Venom Effects, and Cell Damage from the Electric Caterpillar's Poison

Jim Crocker
20th June, 2024

Evolution, Venom Effects, and Cell Damage from the Electric Caterpillar's Poison

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • Researchers at The University of Queensland studied the venomous caterpillar C. monomorpha from North-Eastern Australia
  • C. monomorpha venom is rich in aerolysin-like proteins, unlike other Limacodidae venoms which are peptide-rich
  • The venom causes acute pain, redness, and swelling by disrupting cell membranes, similar to asp caterpillar venom
The study of venomous caterpillars has gained significant attention due to their potential medical and scientific applications. One such focus is the venomous caterpillar from North-Eastern Australia, identified as the larva of the moth Comana monomorpha by researchers at The University of Queensland[1]. This caterpillar, known for its dense covering of venomous spines, exhibits a unique venom profile that contributes to our understanding of venom evolution in the superfamily Zygaenoidea. Venomous caterpillars, particularly those in the Limacodidae family, are known for causing painful stings. Previous research has characterized the venoms of various species within this family, revealing a complex array of toxins. For instance, the venom of the Doratifera vulnerans caterpillar contains over 151 proteinaceous toxins, including peptides that disrupt cell membranes and cause pain[2]. Similarly, the North American saddleback caterpillar, Acharia stimulea, has been found to possess neurohormones and knottins, demonstrating a diverse venom composition[3]. The current study on C. monomorpha expands this knowledge by highlighting a distinct venom composition. Unlike previously studied Limacodidae venoms, which are rich in peptides, C. monomorpha venom is abundant in aerolysin-like proteins. These proteins are known for their ability to permeabilize cell membranes, a trait shared with the venom of asp caterpillars from the Megalopygidae family. This similarity suggests a convergent evolution of venom components between these two families, despite their taxonomic differences. Clinical symptoms of C. monomorpha envenomation include acute pain, erythema (redness of the skin), and oedema (swelling), which can persist for more than a week. These symptoms are consistent with the venom's action on sensory neurons and human neuroblastoma cells, where it causes significant membrane permeabilization. This effect is likely due to the aerolysin-like proteins, which disrupt cellular integrity and lead to the observed clinical manifestations. The methodology employed in this study involved a combination of DNA barcoding, transcriptomics, and proteomics. DNA barcoding was used to accurately identify the caterpillar species, while transcriptomics and proteomics provided a detailed analysis of the venom composition. Transcriptomics involves sequencing the RNA transcripts present in the venom glands, offering insights into the genes expressed and the proteins they encode. Proteomics, on the other hand, involves the large-scale study of proteins, including their structures and functions. By analyzing the proteins harvested from the spine tips of C. monomorpha, researchers were able to determine the specific toxins present in the venom. This study's findings are significant as they reveal the diversity of venom compositions within the Limacodidae family. The presence of aerolysin-like proteins in C. monomorpha venom, as opposed to the peptide-rich venoms of other limacodids, underscores the evolutionary adaptability of these caterpillars. It also highlights the potential for discovering novel bioactive compounds that could have applications in medicine and biotechnology. Previous studies have shown that venomous caterpillars can produce a wide range of toxins with various biological activities. For example, the venom of Lonomia caterpillars contains toxins that affect blood coagulation, leading to hemorrhagic syndromes[4]. In contrast, the venom of D. vulnerans includes peptides that cause pain and disrupt cell membranes[2]. The current study adds to this body of knowledge by identifying a new type of venom composition in C. monomorpha, further illustrating the complexity and diversity of caterpillar venoms. In conclusion, the research conducted by The University of Queensland on the venomous caterpillar C. monomorpha provides valuable insights into the evolutionary diversity of venom in the Limacodidae family. By identifying aerolysin-like proteins as the primary toxins, this study enhances our understanding of how these venoms function and their potential applications. The findings also emphasize the importance of continued research into the venoms of lesser-known species, as they may hold the key to new medical and scientific breakthroughs.

GeneticsBiochemAnimal Science


Main Study

1) Phylogeny, envenomation syndrome, and membrane permeabilising venom produced by Australia's electric caterpillar Comana monomorpha.

Published 19th June, 2024


Related Studies

2) Production, composition, and mode of action of the painful defensive venom produced by a limacodid caterpillar, Doratifera vulnerans.


3) Venom composition and bioactive RF-amide peptide toxins of the saddleback caterpillar, Acharia stimulea (Lepidoptera: Limacodidae).


4) The venom of the Lonomia caterpillar: an overview.

Journal: Toxicon : official journal of the International Society on Toxinology, Issue: Vol 49, Issue 6, May 2007

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