Spider-Man was perhaps the first to demonstrate the full effects of a spider bite: crime-fighting superpowers. But now it’s the turn of cereal crops to benefit. The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) in Australia is looking into the possibility of using spider venom as an insecticide – a potentially safe, environmentally friendly, and sustainable pest control method.
The few years that go into developing new pesticides can’t really compete with the thousands of millenia that have gone into the evolution of the spider and its venom. In recent years, this has led to investigations into the alternative properties that spider venom might have. Already extracted and filed in a ‘venom library’ for potential medicinal uses, spider and scorpion venom is now being tested for use against insect pests. Different spider species have different venom types, many of which are specific to the type of insect that they prey on. As these venoms have been so effective for such a long time, it seems that using nature’s advanced knowledge of insect control is perhaps the best way to develop pesticides that insects are unlikely to develop resistance to.
The use of chemical pesticides is slowly becoming more unsustainable – the costs of researching, developing and producing new pesticides are becoming far greater than the potential rewards as pests develop resistance to these poisons faster and faster. It is hoped that by using specific, targeted and naturally occurring venoms insect pests will be stopped in their tracks, while their predators will remain safe from harm. Since venoms are also biodegradable, this could offer a more environmentally sound alternative to chemical pesticides, too.
Peptides from the venom will be tested to see whether they will work as insecticides for specific pest problems, and to see if they can be produced in large enough quantities. Thankfully for anyone with even a slight arachnophobia, spider-farming to get enough venom is not a practical solution, so the toxins will have to be artificially synthesized. Once this is done, the process of developing a complete product can begin. Although still in the very early stages of development, researchers are hopeful that this could add another aspect to the microbial pesticides and biocontrol agents already being used for crop protection, and could work well as part of integrated pest management programmes in the future.
Sharwood, S., Spider venom to be tested for pesticide potential, The Register, 20th March 2012
Synthetic spider venom could add bite to crop protection, GRDC, 19th March 2012
Synthetic spider venom could add bite to crop protection, Seed Quest, 15th March 2012