Milking Spiders: Why Would You Want To Collect Toxic Venom?

Spider milking might sound like an unpleasant activity, but the results are indispensable for molecular science.

Sedating the largest huntsman spider in Australia in order to harvest its venom doesn’t sound like a fun task—but for the sake of science, Australian Museum’s Head Spider Wrangler Lachlan Manning will do what it takes.

You don’t have to be bitten in order to get venom from a spider’s fangs. It’s actually a delicate operation involving carbon dioxide, a gentle spider restraint system, some pipettes, and a tiny zap of electricity, as Manning has been demonstrating twice daily at a glass-walled venom lab within the museum’s latest exhibition, Spiders—Alive & Deadly.

One of the spiders lined up for venom harvest is the massive golden huntsman (Beregama aurea), a species with the largest leg span in Australia.

"Their leg span can reach up to 18 centimetres, but that would be a really large one, typically they're around 16 cm," explains Manning. "I have three currently here at the museum, although one has an egg sac at the moment, so there's potential for another hundred [to hatch]."

Look out for our LIVE spider milking video feed this Friday 9 December
at 10.30AEST on our Facebook page!

Lachlan Manning at work demonstrating spider milking
(photo by James Horan, courtesy Australian Museum)

Even though the golden huntsman venom hasn’t been studied yet, any new venom sample is valuable to the researchers at University of Queensland’s Institute of Molecular Bioscience (UQ IMB).

Venoms are complex chemical cocktails honed and shaped by evolution over millennia, so there’s a lot of potential here for discovering beneficial molecules. Australian scientists are well-placed to research the properties of toxins found in venom, since we have no shortage of creatures that produce it.

At UQ IMB, the researchers have been maintaining ArachnoServer, a database for cataloguing the structure and properties of protein toxins found in various spider venoms. Figuring out what a toxin does can help us also figure out how to harness the benefits.

Peptides found in venoms are being explored for medical uses, such as pain treatment, management of diabetes and heart problems. Venom from highly toxic funnel-web spiders has been investigated for killing breast cancer cells.

Spider milking in progress (photo by Abram Powell, courtesy Australian Museum)

But it’s not just the field of medicine where spiders could come in handy. Manning is especially excited about the potential to use tools found in spider venom as targeted pesticides.

"Each species of spider has a preferred prey that their venom has evolved to target. For example, an orb spider will target flying insects, and a trapdoor spider prefers crawling things such as cockroaches," he explains.

"Species-specific pesticides is something I find really exciting."

By isolating the insect-killing peptides in spider venom and learning to synthesise it in a lab, you can end up with a highly targeted insecticide. UQ IMB Professor Glenn King has been working on one such application which could potentially save the world’s honeybees from a highly damaging pest, the Varroa mite.

As for the golden huntsman venom, who knows what powers it might reveal. The sample collected by Manning will be dried, frozen, and posted to the University of Queensland in a labelled box along with many other vials.

"They'll keep it in their venom library either for something they're working on at the moment, or potentially future use.”

Header image: the golden huntsman in Lachlan's lab, ready for milking this Friday (photo by Lachlan Manning, courtesy Australian Museum)

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