Insects beware: The sea anemone is coming

November 29, 2012

Bethesda, MD--As insects evolve to become resistant to insecticides, the need to develop new ways to control pests grows. A team of scientists from Leuven, Belgium have discovered that the sea anemone's venom harbors several toxins that promise to become a new generation of insecticides that are environmentally friendly and avoid resistance by the insects. Since these toxins disable ion channels that mediate pain and inflammation, they could also spur drug development aimed at pain, cardiac disorders, epilepsy and seizure disorders, and immunological diseases such as multiple sclerosis. This finding is described in the December 2012 issue of The FASEB Journal.

"Are toxins friend or foe? The more we understand these toxins, they are more friend, and less foe," said Jan Tytgat, Ph.D., co-author of this study from the Laboratory of Toxicology at the University of Leuven in Leuven, Belgium. "Toxicology shows us how to exploit Mother Nature's biodiversity for better and healthier living."

To make this discovery, Tytgat and colleagues extracted venom from the sea anemone, Anthopleura elegantissima, and purified three main toxins present in the venom. The toxins were characterized in depth, using biochemical and electrophysiological techniques. This provided insight into their structure, functional role and mechanisms of action. The discovery of these toxins may be considered similar to the discovery of a new drug, as they are compounds which could lead to new insecticides and possibly new treatments for human diseases.

"Because these toxins are aimed at important ion channels present not only in insect cells, they form the leading edge of our new biotechnology. Discovery of this useful marine toxin should provide additional incentive to preserve the fragile coral reefs where anemones thrive," said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal, "But, given current attitudes, I suspect there's a better chance of a sea anemone killing a stink bug than for us to reverse our inroads on ocean life."
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Receive monthly highlights from The FASEB Journal by e-mail. Sign up at http://www.faseb.org/fjupdate.aspx. The FASEB Journal is published by the Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). It is among the most cited biology journals worldwide according to the Institute for Scientific Information and has been recognized by the Special Libraries Association as one of the top 100 most influential biomedical journals of the past century. FASEB is composed of 26 societies with more than 100,000 members, making it the largest coalition of biomedical research associations in the United States. Celebrating 100 Years of Advancing the Life Sciences in 2012, FASEB is rededicating its efforts to advance health and well-being by promoting progress and education in biological and biomedical sciences through service to our member societies and collaborative advocacy.

Details: Steve Peigneur, László Béress, Carolina Möller, Frank Marí, Wolf-Georg Forssmann, and Jan Tytgat. A natural point mutation changes both target selectivity and mechanism of action of sea anemone toxins. FASEB J 26:5141-5151, doi:10.1096/fj.12-218479 ; http://www.fasebj.org/content/26/12/5141.abstract

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

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