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Australian Stinging Trees Contain 'Scorpion-like Venom'

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Researchers have spotted a tree in Australia that secrets "scorpion-like" toxins. This chemical can spike severe pain for weeks.

These so-called Stinging trees from Australia sting painfully upon contact via their stiff epidermal hairs, called trichomes. This Dendrocnide-induced acute pain lasts for several hours. Whereas, intermittent painful episodes can persist for days and weeks.

Stinging trees grow in the rainforest of eastern Australia. They are called gympie-gympies by the Indigenous Gubbi Gubbi people. The major habitat is the rainforest areas of northeast Queensland, where the tree is popular among hikers. The giant Australian tree Dendrocnide excelsa is 35 m tall along the slopes of eastern Australian rainforests. The trees possess broad oval- or heart-shaped velvety-soft leaves

The biochemists and associated scientists at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia conducted this study. The findings are published on September 16 in Science Advances. After identifying the toxin from the tree, the team of researchers analyzed the secreted chemical.

The sting is said to be a defense mechanism against herbivores. The tiny hairs that cover the leaves, stems, and fruits are responsible for their scorpion bite. These hollow hairs are made of silica, which behaves like tiny hypodermic needles. A minute touch could inject venom into the skin.

The scientists from the University of Queensland commented on the case: “Victims report an initial sting that feels like fire at first, then subsides over hours to a pain reminiscent of having the affected body part caught in a slammed car door",

The venom is analyzed under scientific techniques. It is a mixture of a class of neurotoxin miniproteins, which they named 'gympietides'. These peptides are made of 36 amino acids. These pain-producing toxins are similar to the venoms produced by animals

Irina Vetter, an associate professor at the University of Queensland's Institute for Molecular Bioscience, said,

"Although they come from a plant, the gympietides are similar to spider and cone snail toxins in the way they fold into their 3D molecular structures and target the same pain receptors - this arguably makes the gympie-gympie tree a truly 'venomous' plant."

Researchers are hopeful that this exclusive discovery would help to study how nerves sense pain. And could lead to the introduction of new remedies in pain management.