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How Centipedes Slay Giant Prey

Jan 23, 2018     Email"> PrintText Size

[video:20180123-How Centipedes Slay Giant Prey]

Centipede rapidly subdues Kunming mouse (Video by the research group) 

Centipedes are known to subdue large prey by using potent and broad-acting venom. However, venom synthesis requires substantial metabolic investment, and the mechanisms of action of centipede venoms remain unclear.

LAI Ren's group from Kunming Institute of Zoology of Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the collaborators from Huazhong University of Science and Technology, University of Science and Technology of China, Baylor College of Medicine, reported that in an encounter reminiscent of David and Goliath, a golden head centipede (Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans) weighing around 3 g can set upon and subdue a caged laboratory mouse weighing around 45 g within 30 seconds, a single bite of the centipede injecting an estimated 30 μL of crude venom into the mouse.

Biochemical analysis of centipede venom uncovered a previously uncharacterized peptide toxin, dubbed Ssm Spooky Toxin (SsTx), which strongly inhibits KCNQ family potassium ion channels, in particular KCNQ4, which controls pulmonary vascular tone and arterial tension. Structural and functional analysis of this interaction revealed that two specific interacting residue pairs (K13-D266 and R12-D288) are crucial to the toxin's effect on KCNQ4.

In vivo tests further demonstrated that SsTx is the major vasoconstricting principle in venom, and that the toxin reduces respiratory rate and triggers hippocampal seizures in mice as well as inducing vessel spasms, acute hypertension, and myocardial ischemia in macaque monkeys. Most of the toxin-induced effects could be reversed by the channel-opening compound retigabine, which is approved for epilepsy treatment.

The findings, published in PNAS, revealed the molecular targets of centipede venom, which helps the tiny creatures subdue larger-bodied prey, and point to an antidote with clinical promise.

This work was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Yunnan Province.

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(Editor: LIU Jia)

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