July 22, 2010 -- Scientists have for the first time collected venom from octopuses captured from the waters of Antarctica.
In the process they have discovered four new octopus species and two new types of cephalopod venom.
Researchers hope the new venoms will lead to the development of drugs for pain management, fighting allergies and treating cancer.
The study was led by Bryan Fry of the University of Melbourne with researchers from the University of Hamburg and the Norwegian University of Technology and Science.
While venom has long been seen as a potential resource for drug development, scientists have only recently realized that the venom of cephalopods -- octopuses, cuttlefish and squid -- is unique.
Fry says venom enzyme activity is normally affected by temperature, but the enzymes in the Antarctic octopus venom somehow manage to stay active below zero.
"The venom of cephalopods living in the waters of the Antarctic has special adaptations allowing it to work in... sub zero temperatures. The next step is to work out what biochemical tricks they have used," he said. "So far the analyses reveals that Antarctic octopus venom harbors a range of toxins, two of which had not previously been described."
"Among the discoveries are new small proteins in the venom with very intriguing activities, which may be potentially useful in drug design," he added.
The new study follows on from Fry's revelation last year that all octopuses are venomous.
Since then, scientists have embarked on the huge task of collecting and studying these venoms to gain a greater understanding of their structure and how they work.
Fry's team travelled to the Antarctic aboard the Australian Antarctic Division's flagship Aurora Australis, collecting 203 octopuses over more than six weeks.
They then genetically profiled each specimen to identify the species and collected venom to analyze in the lab.
"These are venoms that have never been studied before. There are minor differences which allow them to work and we still don't know what those differences are," Fry said. "So we're comparing them to octopus venom with similar enzymes from other species like the tropical Blue-ringed octopus."