A team of Chinese researchers has completed the first analysis of the venom of the Scorpiops jendeki scorpion, which lives in southwestern China.
In addition to many known venom molecules, the team identified nine new venom components, which they hope may be useful in developing new drug applications.
Their research is also the first evaluation of any venom from the Euscorpiidae family, one of the most widespread scorpion groups, found in Europe, Africa, Asia and America.
"As euscorpiid venoms have never been investigated yet, our work greatly expands the current knowledge of scorpion venoms," study lead author Yibao Ma of Wuhan University told Discovery News. "Besides supplying numerous candidate molecules for drug design and development, our work could provide some clues to the evolution of the scorpion venom arsenal by comparison with venom data from other scorpion lineages."
Ma's team used electrical stimulation to goad the scorpion venom glands into overdrive. Then they collected the glands from 50 scorpions and analyzed what genes were active during venom production. From this information, they were able to determine what substances make up the venom.
Scorpion venom is surprisingly complex. Most venoms contain some type of toxin to paralyze the animal's prey, but they can also include molecules that can prevent blood coagulation, block inflammation and break down cells, according to Harald Sontheimer, a neurobiologist at the University of Alabama Birmingham.
The complexity of the venom also helps to ensure that the scorpion can target a variety of prey, and that prey do not develop immunity to the scorpion's sting, Sontheimer said.
Venom components have been tested in a variety of drug applications. Sontheimer discovered a chemical compound within one type of scorpion venom that can treat brain tumors. The venom treatment is now in the final stages of clinical trials. Other scorpion venom components have anti-malarial or antibiotic properties.
Sontheimer's drug comes from the Buthidae family of scorpions, which can be lethal to humans. Euscorpiids pose less of a threat to people; their stings are more like a mosquito bite.
"(Ma's work) is an illustration of the huge diversity that's out there," said Penelope Austin, acting biology editor for BioMed Central, who published the research in the journal BMC Genomics. "There's every reason to go on collecting and sequencing."
With 1,500 different species of scorpion and so many different types of venom molecules, "even in this day and age there is still so much biological diversity to mine and explore," she said.