The Australian continent is a veritable hotbed of poison-spewing, pulse-raising, panic-inducing and preternaturally large fauna. (But thank goodness there’s also an ample supply of cute ‘n’ cuddly critters residing Down Under to balance things out.)

Among the most fearsome Aussie animals of them all is an invertebrate; an eight-eyed, three-clawed scare machine that’s very mention can make the blood run cold in even the most stoic antipodeans; a notorious beast that runs, swims and most certainly bites.

Say g’day (or not) to the Australian funnel-web spider.

Despite the best-to-be-avoided-at-all-costs reputation of Australian funnel-web spiders, the very thing that renders them potentially lethal to humans — their extra-strength venom — has proven to be liquid gold for the Michigan startup behind a line of upcoming agricultural pesticides that are effective, chemical-free and, yes, safe for humans, pets, birds, fish and beneficial insects including crucial pollinators.

After 11 years in development, Kalamazoo-headquartered Vestaron Corp. has at long last received the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to market and sell a line of natural pesticides that incorporate Australian funnel-web spider venom as a key ingredient. More accurately, these potentially game-changing pesticides, sold by Vestaron under the Spear (Species at Risk) brand, include key peptides extracted from the spiders’ venom — venom proteins that do a bang-up job of killing targeted insects without harming other garden-dwellers.

The science, in a nutshell:

Tens of thousands of insecticidal peptides exist in nature. Many are not toxic to mammals. Spiders alone produce an estimated 5 million to 20 million distinct peptide toxins, some of which target metabolic pathways of pests that current insecticides do not. This targeted approach is why Spear products are designed to be nontoxic to mammals, honeybees and beneficial insects, birds or fish — species that do not have the receptor where the insecticide enters the cell.

Our technology isolates these peptides and solves the resistance problem by aggressively pinpointing and attacking new metabolic pathways.

While the Spear family of pesticides received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back in 2014 (the first venom-based pest control solution to do so), a full blessing from the FDA was the final hurdle that Vestaron needed to clear before hitting the market.

The first three Spear products to be released by venture-funded Vestaron include Spear-T, which targets the common greenhouse pest known as thrips (aka corn lice). Next up is Spear-P, a formula developed with the sole mission to protect precious spuds by halting the spread of the nefarious Colorado potato beetle. Lastly, Spear-C, which will be released in late 2016, eliminates pests of the Lepidopteran variety — that is, fruit- and veggie-eating caterpillars.

Spider hole, Blues Mountains, Australia Possessing powerful fangs and a potentially deadly-to-humans bite, Australian funnel-web spiders live in underground borrows with entrances lined with silken 'trip-wires' used to catch pray. (Photo: richard winchell/flickr)

Again, despite being extracted from super-potent spider venom from Down Under, the bio-insecticides developed by Vestaron are not detrimental to beneficial bugs including honeybees. While highly effective in eliminating common garden pests, chemical pesticides containing neonicotinoids are believed to one of several key contributors, if not the key contributor, to colony collapse disorder, particularly when used in residential gardening and landscaping settings.

In recent years, numerous big box home improvement centers including the Home Depot have pledged to purge neonicotinoid-based products from their shelves. Most recently, Scotts-Miracle Gro-owned pest control giant Ortho announced plans to gradually reformulate its neonic-based consumer offerings.

While it’s hard not to rally behind the anti-neonic movement — after all, our survival depends on the well being of pollinators — many are concerned about the overall effectiveness of safer, non-chemical alternatives.

Speaking to Michigan Radio, Vestaron director and chief executive Dr. John Sorenson is confident that venom-based Spear products, which are being marketed toward backyard famers and greenhouse growers alike, will get the job done and then some.

“It’s exactly the same as the nasty old organic chemicals that have been used for years: 95-100 percent control,” Sorenson explains. “After all, spiders through the millennia have become pretty good at killing insects.”

Sorenson, former president of North Carolina-based Syngenta Biotechnology, notes that common non-synthetic pesticides are roughly 80 percent effective.

Then there’s the somewhat nightmarish question of process. Were thousands of aggressive, toxic venom-dripping Australian web-funnel spiders wrangled up and shipped off to the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center in Kalamazoo for farming and subsequent milking?

While the milking of Australian web-funnel spiders is a somewhat common practice in Australia for antidote-collecting purposes, the team at Vesatron didn’t have to deal directly with spiders in the development of its innovative bio-insecticide. During the early research phases, the startup acquired Australian Blue Mountains funnel-web spider (Hadronyche versuta) venom directly from an Australian firm. After isolating the desired peptides, the company let the process of natural fermentation do the rest.

“We selected those that don’t have any mammalian effects, and we isolated those components, synthesized the genes for them, put them into yeast, and by fermentation, that produces our product for us,” Sorenson explains to Michigan Radio. “So it’s a slick way to have to get around having to milk spiders.”

So rest assured Kalamazoo residents … there isn’t a laboratory/production facility in town that’s positively crawling with large and extremely venomous spiders from Australia. Or maybe there is. But Vestaron certainly isn’t responsible for it.

If the first three Spear pest control products take off and Vesatron proves to have an effective and honeybee-safe hit on its hands, we can all tip our hats to — and then quickly run away from — the Australian funnel-web spider. Sure, its venom may be toxic enough to kill a full-grown man. But it also contains the key ingredients that could revolutionize agricultural pesticides while blasting pollinator-harming chemicals into extinction.

Via [Michigan Radio], [Wired]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Is spider venom the ultimate natural pesticide?
Michigan-based startup Vestaron harnesses Australian spider venom to safely control unwanted agricultural pests without harming bees.