PhD student Edward Evans is exploring the factors that influence the release and quantity of specific toxins in scorpion venom to optimise venom harvesting for pharmaceutical research and anti-venom production.
“I aim to identify variations in venom compositions on several levels; between scorpion species, between individuals of the same species, and also within the same individuals throughout their life stages,” Mr Evans said.
Previous AITHM research has found that scorpions are able to change their venom composition in response to their predators. They are the only venomous animals currently known to do so.
Advances in analytic technology are now assisting researchers to pinpoint when and why individual scorpions calibrate changes to their venom, which will aid in developing laboratory conditions that can maximise the yield of venom specimens for research purposes.
“If we can actually change scorpion venom compositions in the lab, by inducing reactions to predators and prey, we can encourage them to produce more specific toxins of interest,” Mr Evans explained.
Mr Evans is currently investigating four native scorpion species, which he sources from collectors in the region and interstate, but he also collects samples that are commonly found around Cairns and nearby Kuranda, equipping himself with a pair of tweezers and disposable food containers.
Australian scorpions are typically not deadly to humans, unlike their cousins in countries such as Mexico, which claim hundreds of lives per year. However, Mr Evans has already uncovered significant variations in toxin levels between individuals of the same species, which may explain why some people suffer more than others when stung.
“I am keen to discover whether these are just random variations or if there is some underlying process governing it,” he said.