Scorpion venom “makes $10 million a liter,” but is it a fool’s gold rush?

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The idea of ​​a farmer milking animals for a living doesn’t sound very remarkable, and in Turkey, that’s indeed what Metin Orenler does.

The difference, however, is that Mr. Orenler processes scorpions for their venom, which reportedly fetches millions of dollars per liter when sold for use in cosmetics and medicine.

Mr. Orenler’s “farm” is home to around 20,000 scorpions of the genus Androctonus turkiyensiswhich are kept in transparent boxes in a building resembling a science lab, according to a Reuters report.

Each scorpion produces around 2 milligrams of venom per day, which is harvested or processed using tweezers and tongs, before being dried ready for export.

Metin Orenler deals with scorpions similar to this Androctonus australis. Their venom is worth up to $10 million per liter.(Getty Images: noegrr)

A liter of venom is worth around $10 million, Mr Orenler told Reuters. It has already been described as the most expensive liquid on the planet.

“We raise the scorpions themselves and also process them,” Orenler said.

“We freeze the venom that we get as a result of the milking we do, then we turn it into powder and sell it [it] in Europe.”

Although scorpion farming may seem bizarre, Mr. Orenler’s operation is far from unique.

Scorpion venom vendors have been popping up all over the world, lured by the promise of big bucks.

Some cosmetic companies are now adding scorpion venom or its extracts to their products, claiming near-miraculous results from their concoctions.

But while some of the cosmetic companies’ claims are unproven, the potential medical uses of venom extracts are considered scientifically very exciting.

Epilepsy, stroke, irritable bowel potential

Volker Herzig, associate professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast, has by its own estimation one of the most diverse collections of arachnid venom on the planet.

Like other arachnid venoms, scorpion venoms contain many different peptides and proteins that can be isolated and examined.

“I have about 160 to 170 different scorpion venoms now,” Dr. said Herzig.

“They could have toxic effects on some animals like insects, but they could also have beneficial effects on some animals like humans.”

A scorpion at night with its tail raised.
Australia’s reputation for poisonous species does not apply to scorpions. No known native species are considered deadly.(Getty Images: Totajila)

His team is studying his venom bank to test potential uses in biological controls against insects and parasites in the agricultural and veterinary space.

They also work with research partners to study human diseases that could be targeted by venom extracts.

The exciting quality of arachnid venoms is that they are very potent and specific in their action, said Dr. Herzig.

“Let’s say a protein is overactive in a certain disease – then if you can find a [venom] toxin that can block against that particular protein, it can be very effective.

“We have [also] spent a lot of time screening our venoms against a sodium channel involved in pain; we found that if you block that channel, it can block pain.”

He also found components in the venom which may prove effective in the treatment of epilepsy and irritable bowel syndrome.

“My old manager [also] found a component that could be effective against strokes.”

A fool’s gold rush?

Like Dr. Herzig, Dorothy Wai of the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences studies the medical uses of venom from scorpions and sea anemones.

More specifically, she looks venom extracts that can help people with autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis.

“Kv1.3 is a target protein that is expressed on the surface of immune cells,” Dr. Wai said.

“My research focuses on a peptide from scorpion venom that can inhibit the immune cell receptor; blocking it can prevent the immune cell from becoming overactive.”

Dr. Wai said she had never been contacted by a venom cultivator. Dr. Herzig, however, did.

“I’ve been contacted by a number of places, from India for example. They contacted me to say they had that number of scorpions on their farm and they were trying to sell me venom” , did he declare.

“I believe a number of other toxinologists have also been contacted.”

But he does not buy their products.

“The problem is you can never be sure of the source,” he said.

Dr. Werzig also does not collect scorpions from the wild, as obtaining permits and finding enough animals is a big challenge.

Instead, he travels to Europe himself and deals with venom from pet owners.

“In Europe there is a very big scene of people keeping spiders and scorpions as pets,” he said.

“You visit a person and he has 200 spiders and scorpions in his basement.”

A scorpion in a tank.
There is a “very big scene” of keeping scorpions and spiders as pets in Europe.(Getty Images: vovashevchuk)

Nor is Dr. Herzig looking for huge volumes of venom of one species, such as the one milked at Mr. Orenler’s farm in Turkey. Instead, he seeks diversity.

“The more molecules you can screen against a particular target, the more likely you are to find something effective against that target.”

Dr. Wai’s team does not collect venom at all. Instead, they’ve sequenced the venom’s DNA and can replicate what they need for their research.

“It’s usually easier to synthesize the peptides in the lab, rather than trying to get enough venom out of them.”

So, if it’s not the researchers, it begs the question: Who’s buying all this farmed venom?

For some producers, it could be cosmetics companies or producers of alternative medicine, but Dr Herzig suspects that in many cases people have been rushing to try to make a quick buck without really assessing the market. .

“I’ve heard of these scorpion farms popping up all over the place, but I’m not sure if that’s a good business model,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s such a demand and honestly I don’t really know if they make a lot of money.”

As for cosmetic companies claiming health benefits, he advises a healthy dose of skepticism.

“I don’t know what they put in there. I would be cautious unless there is scientific proof that the components have an effect.”

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