Researchers studied the toxin of the Gympie-Gympie stinging tree, a type of plant that causes extreme long-lasting pain in those who touch it.
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia found that a giant stinging tree called Gympie-Gympie releases toxins as painful as the venom of some spiders and cone snails.
As harmless as it may seem, the plant has intrigued the scientific community for decades. They are found throughout the rain forests of eastern Australia.
People who visit its natural habitat often carry respirators, protective gloves, and a handful of antihistamines; all for personal safety if they come into contact with the plant.
A new family of toxins
By studying the toxin, Professor Irina Vetter, Dr. Thomas Durek, and scientists at the University’s Molecular Bioscience Institute were able to identify a new family of toxins, which was named “gympietides” after the stinging tree.
“We were interested in finding out if there were any neurotoxins that could explain these symptoms, and why the Gympie-Gympie can cause such long-lasting pain,” Professor Vetter said.
The substance is injected into human skin by small needle-like appendages found in the stinging tree. Similar to fine hair, they act like hypodermic needles.
Molecules such as histamine, acetylcholine, and formic acid have been tested previously, but the pain they cause is no match for the Gympie-Gympie toxin.
People who come into contact with gympietides may end up in the hospital.
The toxins found in some spiders and cone snails target the same pain receptors as gympietides.
“These are three widely divergent groups of organisms — spiders, cone snails and now these trees — producing a toxin that’s very similar,” said Shabnam Mohammadi, a toxin researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who was not involved in the study.
Professor Vetter explains that long-lasting pain occurs because the toxin changes the sodium channels in our sensory neurons.
The researcher and her team hope that with more research on Gympie-Gympie, it will be possible to understand more about the functioning of our pain-sensing nerves – which also contributes to the development of new painkillers.
“By understanding how this toxin works, we hope to provide better treatment to those who have been stung by the plant, to ease or eliminate the pain,” Professor Vetter concluded.