Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

New Painkiller from Fanged Fish’s Heroin-Like Venom

A fearless fanged coral reef fish that disables its opponents with heroin-like venom offers hope for the development of new painkillers.

The venomous fang blenny is found on the Great Barrier Reef. “The fish injects other fish with opioid peptides that act like heroin or morphine, inhibiting pain rather than causing it,” said A/Prof Bryan Fry of The University of Queensland. “Its venom is chemically unique.

“The venom causes the bitten fish to become slower in movement and dizzy by acting on their opioid receptors,” Fry said. This meant that the fang blenny was more easily able to escape a predator or defeat a competitor.

Fang blennies (Meiacanthus), also known as poison-fang blennies or sabre-tooth blennies, are popular as ornamental tropical aquarium fish. “Fang blennies are the most interesting fish I’ve ever studied and have one of the most intriguing venoms of them all,” Fry said. “These fish are fascinating in their behaviour. They fearlessly take on potential predators while also intensively fighting for space with similar-sized fish. Their secret weapons are two large grooved teeth on the lower jaw that are linked to venom glands.

“This study is an excellent example of why we need to protect nature,” Fry said. “If we lose the Great Barrier Reef, we will lose animals like the fang blenny and its unique venom that could be the source of the next blockbuster painkilling drug.”

The research has been published in Current Biology.