Insect toxins - selective pharmacological tools and drug/chemical leads

Curr Opin Insect Sci. 2018 Dec:30:93-98. doi: 10.1016/j.cois.2018.10.001. Epub 2018 Oct 9.


Insect toxins comprise a diverse array of chemicals ranging from small molecules, polyamines and peptide toxins. Many target nervous system and neuromuscular ion channels and so rapidly affect the behaviour of animals to which the toxin is applied or injected. Other modes of action have also been identified. Wasps, bees, flies, beetles and ants generate a rich arsenal of channel-active toxins, some of which offer selective pharmacological probes that target particular ion channels, while others act on more than one type of channel. Philanthotoxins from the digger wasp have been fruitful in adding to our understanding of ligand-gated ion channels both in the nervous system and at neuromuscular junctions. Fire ants produce the toxic alkaloid solenopsin, a molecule which has stimulated attempts to generate synthetic compounds with insecticidal activity. Apamin from bee venom targets calcium-activated potassium channels, which can in turn influence the release of neuropeptides. Melittin, another bee venom component, is a membrane-acting peptide. The saliva of the assassin bug contains toxins that target the voltage-gated calcium channels of their insect prey. Certain beetles produce diamphotoxin, a haemolytic peptide toxin with traditional use as an arrow poison and others generate leptinotarsin with similar properties. Mastoparan is a powerful peptide toxin present in the venom of wasps. Its toxic actions can be engineered out leaving a potent antimicrobial molecule of interest. In this short review we describe the actions of selected insect toxins and evaluate their potential as neuroactive pharmacological tools, candidate lead molecules for insect control and therapeutic candidates with potential antimicrobial, antiviral and anti-cancer applications.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arthropod Venoms / chemistry
  • Arthropod Venoms / pharmacology
  • Insect Control / instrumentation*
  • Insecta / drug effects*
  • Toxins, Biological / chemistry*
  • Toxins, Biological / pharmacology*


  • Arthropod Venoms
  • Toxins, Biological