He spends his time researching Sydney’s most-feared arachnid – the funnel-web spider. She studies ants whose sting will leave you writhing in pain for 48 hours. Together, they’re working to create the next-generation of insecticides, which could increase the amount of food farmers produce and reduce the number of bees killed by pesticides.
For my PhD I’m looking at ant venom, specifically I want to find a peptide in the venom that works in a way that current insecticides don't. This will ensure that there is no resistance in the insect to the peptide. The most painful sting from an ant in the world, the bullet ant, is found in French Guiana and is one of the ants I’ve been working with – you're in pain for 48 hours after you get stung.
In terms of insecticide development, we're mainly targeting agricultural insects. We'd want to stay away from something that's broader spectrum because that way we won't kill bees and other beneficial organisms. If we find an insecticide that works, it can increase crop yields by 20 per cent, which will help our growing world population. This is particularly important as world hunger is still a major problem in the developing world.
Axel Touchard is one of our collaborators based in French Guiana and he finds us the ants and sends me the venom. He actually came to Australia and showed Graham and I how to find ants in the Blue Mountains. We went around turning over rocks and trying to see where to find the right ants. He was really good to have because he'd just look at an ant and he'd say, "No, that's a useless one" because it didn’t have a stinger and was therefore not venomous.
Neither Graham nor I do much fieldwork so we were both struggling without a microscope to identify the ants. It was weird seeing Graham out of his usual suits and in the field. He kept saying, "I'm not made for this!" At one point Axel suggested we try eating an ant because people can, and do. I can’t remember if Graham ate an ant or not, but I definitely didn’t! In the end we probably had about six clear, resealable bags full after that day, so not too many.
I really look forward to the day when we can identify the actual insecticidal peptide that we can develop further. Once you have the sequence of the peptide you don't have to dissect the ants any more. This will be great because it saves us from dissecting hundreds of ants and all the lab work that goes into separating out a single peptide from the hundreds that are in the venom.
It'd be really great to see the ant peptide go through the process of being registered as an insecticide on the market that is available for people to use on their crops. In the future, I'd want to be working in the field where, as well as looking at ant venoms and how they work, I’d also like to look at other types of envenomation – snake bites and how we can treat them. Also, I have an interest in working on developing peptides as therapeutic drugs.
The best piece of advice Graham’s ever given me is “just keep going”. He was my lecturer when I studied my undergraduate degree in medical science at UTS. I really liked the way he lectured, so when I was looking at doing my honours project and I discovered I liked his projects, it was easy to choose him as my supervisor. I really enjoyed the whole experience, so I continued on to a PhD and have kept working with him since. Post-PhD I’m looking at working outside of UTS, either in the pharmaceutical industry or other research labs, as it would be really beneficial for me and my career.
Samira's been with me for three-and-a-half years now. Her ant project was a new direction for my lab. I work on animal venoms and am interested in the peptide toxins within venoms that can be used to develop therapeutic drugs or insecticides. The latter is more our current focus.
I have worked for many years on spider and scorpion venoms. I have also studied snake, sea anemone, dinoflagellate, platypus and jellyfish venoms, although these weren’t so much from the drug- or insecticide-discovery angle. It was more to do with how these organisms actually produce their envenomation syndromes in humans and how we can treat patients.
My background is in neuropharmacology and my expertise is in electrophysiology. I study the vertebrate and invertebrate nervous system particularly the structure and pharmacology of ion channels in excitable cell membranes – basically how nerve cells communicate and how we can modulate this activity using animal toxins for the development of therapeutics or insect-selective bioinsecticides.
We have now reached a point with the ant venom research where we needed to determine the sequences of all the hundreds of peptides in the venom. So we decided to move over into an area known as transcriptomics. Transcriptomics is basically the study of what gets translated from the DNA into peptides and proteins and I had absolutely zero background in this area of molecular biology. Samira needed to step up to bring this technique to our lab.
Samira's a fantastic worker. She's a real self-starter. I’ve had 25 or more honours students, and I would say she’s in the top five in terms of self-motivation, getting things done on time and being proactive. But what I've really noticed lately is she's teaching me stuff! You see this transformation of the student/supervisor relationship from one of me imparting knowledge and skills and mentoring her, to a point where she's approaching the end of the PhD and she's become the expert in the area.
Samira’s set to finish her PhD in the next couple of months. It would be great to work with her beyond her PhD as you form a strong relationship with your students; you know their skills, their passions, and their capabilities. But I think it's very important that they step outside of their comfort zone and rise to new challenges outside of UTS. Maybe at some stage in the future, coming back and working with us would be fantastic because then the knowledge she has built up from other labs comes back to UTS.
And yes, I did eat an ant that day in the Blue Mountains; quite a nice citrus taste. However, I probably won’t eat them on a regular basis – a bit too crunchy.