This toxic Australian plant injects scorpion-like venom

 - the pain can last for days

Australia is home to some of the world’s most dangerous wildlife. Anyone who spends time outdoors in eastern Australia is wise to keep an eye out for snakes, spiders, swooping birds, crocodiles, deadly cone snails and tiny toxic jellyfish.

But what not everybody knows is that even some of the trees will get you.

Our research on the venom of Australian stinging trees, found in the country’s northeast, shows these dangerous plants can inject unwary wanderers with chemicals much like those found in the stings of scorpions, spiders and cone snails.

The stinging trees

In the forests of eastern Australia there are a handful of nettle trees so noxious that signs are commonly placed where humans trample through their habitat. These trees are called gympie-gympie in the language of the Indigenous Gubbi Gubbi people, and Dendrocnide in botanical Latin (meaning “tree stinger”).

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A casual split-second touch on an arm by a leaf or stem is enough to induce pain for hours or days. In some cases the pain has been reported to last for weeks.

A gympie-gympie sting 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. A final stage called allodynia occurs for days after the sting, during which innocuous activities such as taking a shower or scratching the affected skin reignites the pain.

How do the trees cause pain?

Pain is an important sensation that tells us something is wrong or that something should be avoided. Pain also creates an enormous health burden with serious impacts on our quality of life and the economy, including secondary issues such as the opiate crisis.

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By Irina Vetter / Australian Research Council Future Fellow, The University of Queensland

Pain is a major medical and socio-economic issue affecting one in five Australians. Our research aims to understand the molecular mechanisms behind pain. The current focus of the lab is to use toxins from plants and venomous animals to understand the molecular pharmacology of pain. These toxins are highly selective for ion channels and receptors found in the sensory neurons that detect pain and can potentially be developed into novel analgesics. Our research also investigates the mechanisms contributing to chemotherapy-induced pain, cancer-associated pain, inflammatory and neuropathic pain, and the painful marine toxin disease known as ciguatera. To investigate the neuropharmacology of pain we use a range of techniques including: in vivo pain pathway characterisation, high-content imaging of cultured sensory neurons, high-throughput screening using calcium and membrane potential assays, and traditional pharmacological assays. While all pain has similar symptoms, it is becoming clear that the underlying mechanisms behind pain can vary. Our research has already challenged traditional understanding of pain pathways and sensory neuronal physiology. We work in collaboration with other leading Australian and international researchers to identify novel therapeutic pain pathways and targets. By uncovering these new pain pathways, as well as identifying novel targets on peripheral sensory neurons, we aim to develop more effective pain therapies that treat the underlying cause of the pain, not just the symptoms.

By Edward Kalani Gilding / Postdoctoral Research Officer, The University of Queensland

Ed works in the space of plant genetics and -omics to uncover how genes evolve new functions and confer in plants. His previous work included developmental biology of trichome (hair) cells and improving the digestibility of the drought-tolerant grain, sorghum.

Before completing his PhD, Ed was active in plant taxonomy and collections, with experience finding species, of the genus Hoya, new to science in several countries. He was (and still is) interested in plant diversity and breeding of ornamental plants.

By Thomas Durek / Senior Research Fellow, The University of Queensland
(Source:; September 17, 2020;
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