Australia is notorious for its venomous spiders, snakes and sea creatures, but researchers have now identified “scorpion-like” toxins secreted by a tree that can cause excruciating pain for weeks.
Split-second contact with the dendrocnide tree, a rainforest nettle known by its Aboriginal name gympie-gympie, delivers a sting far more potent than similar plants found in the US or Europe.
A team of Australian scientists said that they now better understand why the gympie-gympie’s sting haunts those unlucky enough to brush up against its leaves.
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 University of Queensland researchers said on Thursday.
In the final, drawn-out stages, simply taking a shower can reignite the pain.
Though the gympie-gympie is covered in fine needle-like hairs similar to other nettles, previous testing for common irritants such as histamines came up empty.
University of Queensland Institute for Molecular Bioscience associate professor Irina Vetter said that the research team discovered a new class of neurotoxin miniproteins, which they christened “gympietides.”
“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,” she said.
Vetter said that the long-lasting pain inflicted by the tree could be explained by the gympietides permanently altering the chemical makeup of the affected sensory neurons — not due to the fine hairs getting stuck in the skin.
The scientists hope that their research, published in Science Advances, would eventually help lead to better treatment for people who have been stung.
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