A Virus Is Stealing The Black Widow’s DNA To Create Its Own Venom


The bite of the Black Widow spider is widely feared, and for excellent reason. A black widow’s venom contains latrotoxin, which can cause muscle rigidity, pain, and vomiting. It’s rarely fatal to humans, but it’s not exactly a party, either. So the news that a virus can steal the genes of a black widow to create its own toxin is not exactly great news.

The virus, named WO, thankfully isn’t interested in humans, at least at the moment. Instead it preys on Wolbachia, a bacteria that lives only in spiders, and it’s basically a chestburster from Aliens. It punches a hole in the bacterium’s cell wall, invades, replicates, and then explodes out to find another bacterium.

How does it get in? It turns out it steals a bit of genetic code from the black widow, namely the part that lets the spider make latrotoxin. Latrotoxin is good for destroying cell walls, and the virus uses it as a type of drill. This is particularly fascinating, scientifically, because it’s the first documented incident of a virus taking genes from something more complicated than a bacterium. That has some pretty curious implications for viruses, and scientists will be scrambling to see how far this genetic thievery goes. It may even have medical applications.

You won’t have to worry about getting a WO infection for a while, if ever, as right now it seems satisfied with eating spider bacteria. But no matter what, you probably want to avoid black widows in the first place. After all, WO might only occasionally have latrotoxin, but a black widow always does.

(via The Verge)