New study reveals how ants inflict pain

Researchers from the University of Queensland have made a groundbreaking discovery regarding the excruciating stings of certain ant species. Published in Nature Communications, the study led by Dr. Sam Robinson and his team at UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience revealed that the venom of these ants targets nerves, much like the venom of snakes and scorpions.

By studying the Australian green ant and the South American bullet ant, known for their stings that induce long-lasting pain, the researchers identified neurotoxins present in the ant venoms. Dr. Robinson explained that these toxins bind to the sodium channels in our sensory neurons, causing them to open more easily and remain active for extended periods. Consequently, this leads to the transmission of persistent pain signals.

Unlike the brief impact of a typical bee sting lasting around 10 minutes, the effects of a bullet ant sting can persist for up to 12 hours. This type of sting is characterized by a deep drilling pain felt in the bones, accompanied by sweating and goosebumps. Although bullet ants are not found in Australia, the country’s green ant, also known as the greenhead ant, can similarly inflict long-lasting pain, which many Australians may have experienced.

The severity of the bullet ant sting earned it the top spot on the pain index of stinging insects created by the late Dr. Justin Schmidt, an entomologist from the United States. This recent research sheds light on the underlying mechanisms of ant venoms and provides valuable insights into the extraordinary pain inflicted by these tiny creatures.

Credit: University of Queensland

Dr. Sam Robinson emphasized the potential of understanding pain on a molecular level to drive the development of novel treatments. Exploring the mechanisms of pain, he highlighted the significance of toxins as invaluable tools in this research endeavor. The neurotoxins specifically targeting sodium channels, which are exclusive to ants, present a unique opportunity for investigation and analysis. This discovery opens up a fresh array of resources for further exploration.

The defensive neurotoxins found in ants evolved as a means to protect themselves from predators during the era of dinosaurs. Over time, ants have emerged as one of the most successful animal groups on our planet.

The research team, comprised of Dr. Jennifer Deuis, Dr. Angelo Keramidas, Professor Irina Vetter, and Professor Glenn King from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) at the University of Queensland, collaborated with the late Dr. Justin Schmidt from the Southwestern Biological Institute in Arizona to achieve these significant findings.

Source: University of Queensland

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