Neurotoxic peptides from the venom of the giant Australian stinging tree
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Stinging trees from Australasia produce remarkably persistent and painful stings upon contact of their stiff epidermal hairs, called trichomes, with mammalian skin. Dendrocnide-induced acute pain typically lasts for several hours, and intermittent painful flares can persist for days and weeks. Pharmacological activity has been attributed to small-molecule neurotransmitters and inflammatory mediators, but these compounds alone cannot explain the observed sensory effects. We show here that the venoms of Australian Dendrocnide species contain heretofore unknown pain-inducing peptides that potently activate mouse sensory neurons and delay inactivation of voltage-gated sodium channels. These neurotoxins localize specifically to the stinging hairs and are miniproteins of 4 kDa, whose 3D structure is stabilized in an inhibitory cystine knot motif, a characteristic shared with neurotoxins found in spider and cone snail venoms. Our results provide an intriguing example of inter-kingdom convergent evolution of animal and plant venoms with shared modes of delivery, molecular structure, and pharmacology.