Spider bites: look on the bright side!

Symptoms of spider bites can include fever, itching, swelling and stiffness. Or so they say – luckily in the UK most people will never get bitten by a spider so we have to rely on stories from warmer places. Although many people worry themselves silly about spiders in the UK, they really don’t need to.

Brown recluse spider, Loxosceles reclusa

Brown recluse spider, Loxosceles reclusa

However, it’s good news for spider-haters everywhere – or at least, it is for spider-haters who suffer from a certain affliction. Prof Frank Schroeder and Prof Jerrold Meinwald, American academics and biochemists have published the results of some recent work on the toxins found in many species of spider. They found a number of compounds which are thought to have potential medical applications. In particular they were able to identify new compounds in the brown recluse, a US species with the potential for a nasty bite. Schroeder explained:

We show how using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for the analysis of a complex mixtures such as spider venom one can find new and entirely unexpected chemistry… Our research shows that brown recluse venom contains important, previously undetected components that have been overlooked. One important aspect of our work is that it highlights that we still know very little about the chemistry of life. Even in case of a spider species such as the brown recluse, which has undergone extensive study by both chemists and biologists, our knowledge of the basic composition of its venom turned out to be very incomplete.

This is pretty interesting stuff, as it introduces a new technique which obviously works well in detecting compounds which may be of interest for all sorts of uses. As the authors of the paper note, using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to analyse other animals, even vertebrates, is likely to be just as productive. All this is a long way from spider-shaped pills being on the shelves. It takes years or even decades for such fundamental research to result in usable products. Still, it was nice to see the Telegraph making the rather prurient prediction: “Spider venom could be used in impotence treatment”. Yes, it’s possible. Along with just about any other ailment you care to mention. Still, I suppose chaps could save themselves the wait and just get intimately acquainted with biting spiders, although I really wouldn’t recommend it. Even if one of the symptoms of spider bite is stiffness.

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  1. Ah, thank you. The brown recluse. Wrinkled Randy, my partner in crime, claims that they frequent his tool shed – on the other side of the fence, which is slightly good news. I’ve tried to tell him that they can do nasty things to the human bod. But Macho Man just pooh-poohs the idea. However, if he’s bitten, perhaps the venom will help his…arthritis.