This article first appeared in Issue 4 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS.
Few among us can resist the allure of a get-rich-quick scheme, and upon hearing that a modestly sized arachnid has “liquid gold” dripping from its tail you might find your eyes turning to dollar signs. Could it be that simply milking a few small animals for their natural exudates could see one’s bank account shuffle into Bloomberg Billionaires Index territory? As is often the case in science, when it comes to scorpion venom, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Google “scorpion venom value” and you’ll be met with estimates that stretch into the multimillions, and in some ways they’re right. Valued in scientific research for compounds that could have far-reaching applications in medicine, as well as teaching us more about ecology and evolution, there are indeed labs across the globe forking out for tiny amounts of the danger milk.
In other parts of the globe, scorpion products are purchased in larger volumes to be smoked, but as it turns out not all venoms are created equal. There are many avenues for the scorpion farmer prospecting for venomous gold, then, but it pays to remember that something’s market value is dependent on the existence of a flourishing market. In the case of top-shelf scorpion venom, that market is as small as it is choosey.
Why do scorpions make venom?
On the ouchy end of a scorpion sits a venomous sting that’s fed by a gland, and while all scorpions are venomous, there are only a few worth worrying about. “When it comes to scorpions, the bigger the better,” said Indiana Jones in The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. As it turns out, he was onto something.
Research conducted earlier this year found that yes, smaller scorpions with more modest pincers are indeed the most likely to pack a serious punch. For instance, the South African thick-tailed scorpion has venom 10 times the strength of the Israeli gold scorpion despite the latter boasting a much bigger size both in pincers and body length. Evolutionarily speaking, it figures that in the budget meeting that is adapting some form of defense, you’d invest in either size or potency.
As for making the venom itself, this too weighs heavy on a scorpion’s energy reserves.
“Scorpions have to raise their metabolism enormously to produce venom. For them, it’s like running a marathon,” evolutionary biologist Dr Arie van der Meijden [KE1] of the CIBIO-InBIO Institute in Portugal told IFLScience. “It takes a lot of effort to make it, but then they never use quite so much.”
Der Meijden’s research looks at the function of different body parts in their ecological contexts, including scorpion’s venom, and it has clearly demonstrated that these arachnids do not part with it lightly.
“We did a study a few years ago where we just poked the scorpion and made it angry so it would inject venom into a vial. They tend to use maybe 3 to 5 percent of their venom per sting which means they can sting many times. But that was in a scenario where you’re just annoying it from above. So, for instance, I’ve been stung by a scorpion several times and I’m never worried about it being dangerous because if the scorpion is free to move it’s just telling me to go away by using a very small amount of venom.”
Seems fair enough. So where does the real danger arise?
“I’ve seen a lot of people in North Africa sleeping on the ground between their palm trees at night to protect them because they’re their only source of income. Those are the people who get killed because they can accidentally roll over on top of a scorpion. Then, they don’t inject just 3 to 5 percent of their venom, they inject 100 [percent] because they are being crushed.”
Northern Africa joins the Middle East, India, Mexico, and parts of South America in being home to some of the 50 or so scorpion species that represent a potential threat to human life. While it’s widely understood that different species’ venoms are built differently in terms of potency, what’s perhaps less well-known is that the venom’s quality also changes with the number of stings.
Scorpions produce pre-venom in their first sting, which comes out as a clear fluid. A few stings in, that venom turns increasingly opaque as it gets thicker and stickier. By the final few pumps, the venom is a very different texture, something der Meijden saw first-hand when his team established a new methodology for extracting it.
How do you “milk” a scorpion?
Historically, the industry standard for isolating scorpion venom involved killing it, removing the venom gland, and grinding it up. As nature has demonstrated, scorpions can also be goaded into envenomating objects, but that’s not necessarily the easiest way to collect it in significant quantities.
In 2021, der Meijden and colleagues succeeded in establishing a non-lethal method for studying scorpion venom, in their case to look specifically at the transcriptomes, which could tell them the genes involved in creating it. Their new-and-improved method uses an electro-stimulator that delivers a low voltage to activate the nerves that empty a venom gland.
“That’s one benefit, because that way the scorpion is completely unharmed. If we then put it back in its box and give it a cricket, it will immediately eat. It’s happy. Not hurt at all. I have seen people extracting scorpion venom using really high voltages… and you see the smoke coming out of the scorpion. Obviously, that poor thing is very badly harmed.”
Beyond animal welfare, keeping the scorpion alive and healthy has many potential benefits for research as it enables scientists to look at a scorpion’s venom qualities over several days. This could one day reveal the influence of diet, season, and other factors on venom composition, which as well as teaching us new things about these animals, could have implications for its other uses.
Why do humans want scorpion venom?
Nature has long been an inspiration for human innovation in everything from technology and design to pharmaceuticals and therapies. With scorpion venoms being rich in proteins, peptides, and molecular compounds that boast the capacity to block, or rearrange, ion channels in the body, they’re considered promising candidates for venom-derived drugs.
Scorpion venom’s applications in pharmaceuticals can vary depending on the specific ion channels they influence. Some that act on sodium channels have shown promise in the management of epilepsy in mouse models. Others that influence potassium channels are being investigated in the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
These venoms have evolved as a weapon to disable certain species by acting on these channels. The general money-making idea behind turning these weapons in our favor is that they may have beneficial effects on other animals, such as us. Scorpion venom, alongside that of sea anemones, snakes, and all manner of bitey, stingy animals, is therefore of great interest in certain areas of potentially profitable research. And with great interest comes great marketability, no? Well, that depends on the volumes you’re talking about.
Is scorpion venom the most valuable liquid in the world?
“I am always puzzled by this big story about scorpion venom being so expensive,” said der Meijden. “I have lots of it. I should be a millionaire, but I am not. And that’s because yes, it’s very expensive to buy… but scorpion venom itself has to be really high quality, and you have to be able to refine it to get the particular components out in quite a pure way, which is even more expensive. And then there is a tiny market.”
While a miniature sample of a few hundred micrograms of scorpion venom might fetch you around $200, that sample could be enough for a year’s worth of research. The potential for profit begins to look even less promising when you consider that the people doing those studies are unlikely to buy their product from unfamiliar sources.
Associate professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Volker Herzig, whose research has included the effect of scorpion venom on epilepsy, has been approached by venom farmers. As he told ABC News, few in research are likely to take people up on these offers.
“I’ve been contacted by a number of places… They’ve contacted me saying they’ve got this number of scorpions at their farm and they’ve been trying to sell me venom. I believe a number of other toxinologists have been contacted as well.”
For his supply, Herzig prefers to travel to Europe where he milks the scorpions of pet enthusiasts. Elsewhere, labs produce stocks by sequencing the DNA of naturally derived samples and figuring out how to artificially synthesize their own. As for der Meijden and his generous supply? “I share it with researchers for free.”
Why won’t researchers buy my venom?
A trustworthy source of scorpion venom is not just important for ensuring its quality (remember what der Meijden was saying about those expensive refinement processes?), but it also has implications for conservation and species extinction. An article published by researchers of the Biodiversity Unit at the University of Turku, Finland, outlined how the amateur venom extraction business is having a significant negative impact on wild scorpion populations.
Having scuttled across this planet for more than 430 million years[MC2] , in which time they’ve succeeded in spreading to almost all of Earth’s major landmasses, scorpions are now threatened by the pet trade and amateur farming, both of which are extracting them from the environment. It’s the authors’ outlook that this industry may hasten the extinction of scorpions, and what’s driving that threat is the same misunderstanding that has led to so many believing that their venom represents a lucrative business opportunity.
“Interest towards scorpion venom has unfortunately led to the situation where enormous amounts of scorpions are collected from nature,” said co-author and doctoral candidate Alireza Zamani in a statement. “For example, a claim was spread in social media in Iran that scorpion venom costs 10 million dollars per litre.”
“As the situation escalated, illegal scorpion farms were established in the country and tens of thousands of scorpions were collected into these farms. Simultaneously, businesses devoted to training people in captive husbandry and rearing, marketing, and bulk distribution of live scorpions began to flourish. As a result, many species are quickly becoming endangered.”
So, as for the million-dollar question: Is scorpion venom the most expensive liquid in the world? The answer, it seems, depends on your approach. If you’re a researcher looking to do investigations into the talented peptides and proteins contained in scorpion venom then yes, it’s up there as one of the most costly items by weight that money can buy (which, given the going rate for lab-grade peanut butter perhaps isn’t all that surprising).
If, however, you’re approaching the scorpion venom market intending to become a millionaire with the installation of a few terrariums, it looks like bad news. While you could probably fashion a makeshift hotel in which to store a few miniature cash cows, chances are the only thing you’re going to find yourself rich in is memories of the time you ended up sitting on a load of scorpion venom with nobody to sell it to.
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