The science behind 'Nature Étude'

Contemporary artist Hiromi Tango has incorporated four references to the Institute for Molecular Bioscience in her new commission Nature Étude (2023). Can you spot all four?

K'gari funnel-web spider

Spotted! K'gari funnel-web spider​​​
K'gari funnel-web spider

Transforming deadly venoms into life-saving medicines

At UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), researchers are using venom from our deadliest creatures to create medicines that could better treat some of the world’s deadliest diseases. 

Toxins from venomous animals and plants, which can incapacitate and even kill you, may seem like a strange place to hunt for new treatments for disease.

But the venoms of stinging trees, spiders, cone snails, scorpions, assassin bugs, centipedes and more are complex chemical cocktails of molecules that affect our nervous system – exactly what is needed when developing treatments for neurological diseases and seeking to better understand how pain and other signals are transmitted. 

Creature features

Explore how IMB researchers are using venom from Australian animals to find new life-saving medicines.

A molecule sourced from funnel web spider venom shows promise as a safe and effective drug for heart attacks.
Researchers have reared cone snails for the first time and found that juveniles have different venoms to adults.
IMB researchers have transformed fear into something more positive with their venom research.

Petri dish

Rainbow-coloured petri dish from Nature Etude, an artwork by Hiromi Tango
Spotted! Petri dish in Nature Étude

Transforming the soil beneath our feet into cures

IMB researchers use petri dishes to grow microbes from soil samples sent in by citizen scientists. Soils for Science is an Australian-first program dedicated to finding new medicines needed in the fight against the scourge of drug-resistant infections, which occur when microbes like bacteria and fungi become resistant to the medicines designed to kill them. 

Superbugs are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics and threaten to cause 10 million deaths per year worldwide by 2050; in Australia, the death rate from antibiotic-resistant bacteria is higher now than 10 years ago. 

More than half of all antibiotics available worldwide have been developed from microbes found in soil and nature, and Australia is one of the most biodiverse environments in the world, spanning beaches, rainforests, wetlands and deserts. This vast, untapped landscape is ripe for the discovery of microbes that could be developed into new antibiotics, anti-fungals and other medicines.   

Butterfly pea plant and petunias

Rainbow-coloured butterfly pea plant from Nature Etude, an artwork by Hiromi Tango
Spotted! Butterfly pea plant in Nature Étude
Rainbow-coloured petunias in Nature Etude, an artwork by Hiromi Tango
Spotted! Petunias in Nature Étude
Contemporary artist, Hiromi Tango and PhD student Max Harding exploring the healing power of plants in the lab

Transforming how medicines are produced and delivered using plants

Imagine if you could eat a sunflower seed or drink tea infused with the medicine needed to treat cancer or obesity. This might sound like science fiction, but it’s moving towards being fact thanks to IMB researchers, who are transforming plants such as petunias and butterfly pea plants into biological factories that can grow medicines.  

Plants naturally produce proteins called cyclotides, which – unlike most proteins – have a circular shape, a stable structure that’s the perfect delivery vehicle for medicines. When combined with regular peptides – short proteins that have great potential as medicines, but lack stability – cyclotides produce molecules that are stable enough to survive the body’s digestive tract and reach their target to start the healing process.  

Plant-grown medicines could simplify transport and storage and have increased affordability compared to traditional drug counterparts. Growing medicines in plants is also more sustainable than industrial manufacturing methods, and offers the promise of improving on current medicines.  

In short, producing medicines in plants is shaping up as a growth area for the future of health. 

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