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Venom: The bite that heals


The hollow fangs of the Jameson’s mamba deliver toxins that can lead to respiratory paralysis—and a person’s death within hours Photo: Mattias Klum/National Geographic
The hollow fangs of the Jameson’s mamba deliver toxins that can lead to respiratory paralysis—and a person’s death within hours Photo: Mattias Klum/National Geographic

February 13, 2013 — Scientists are unlocking the medical potential of venom.

Snakes, snake eggs, and lizards infuse rice wine in bottles at a restaurant in Le Mat Village. Locals say that drinking these concoctions eases pain, keeps organs healthy, and boosts virility Photo: Mattias Klum/National Geographic
Snakes, snake eggs, and lizards infuse rice wine in bottles at a restaurant in Le Mat Village. Locals say that drinking these concoctions eases pain, keeps organs healthy, and boosts virility Photo: Mattias Klum/National Geographic

The following is an excerpt from the February issue of National Geographic Magazine

Venom—the stuff that drips from the fangs and stingers of creatures lurking on the hiking trail or hiding in the cellar or under the woodpile—is nature’s most efficient killer. 

Venom is exquisitely honed to stop a body in its tracks. The complex soup swirls with toxic proteins and peptides—short strings of amino acids similar to proteins. The molecules may have different targets and effects, but they work synergistically for the mightiest punch. 

Some go for the nervous system, paralyzing by blocking messages between nerves and muscle. Some eat away at molecules so that cells and tissues collapse. Venom can kill by clotting blood and stopping the heart or by preventing clotting and triggering a killer bleed. 

All venom is multifaceted and multitasking. (The difference between venom and poison is that venom is injected, or dibbled, into victims by way of specialized body parts, and poison is ingested.) Dozens, even hundreds, of toxins can be delivered in a single bite, some with redundant jobs and others with unique ones. 

In the evolutionary arms race between predator and prey, weapons and defenses are constantly tweaked. Drastically potent concoctions can result: Imagine administering poison to an adversary, then jabbing him with a knife, then finishing him off with a bullet to the head. That’s venom at work.

Read the full article in the February issue of National Geographic magazine
Read the full article in the February issue of National Geographic magazine

Ironically, the properties that make venom deadly are also what make it so valuable for medicine. Many venom toxins target the same molecules that need to be controlled to treat diseases. Venom works fast and is highly specific. Its active components—those peptides and proteins, working as toxins and enzymes—target particular molecules, fitting into them like keys into locks. Most medicines work the same way, fitting into and controlling molecular locks to thwart ill effects. 

It’s a challenge to find the toxin that hits only a certain target, but already top medicines for heart disease and diabetes have been derived from venom. New treatments for autoimmune diseases, cancer, and pain could be available within a decade.

Read the full article here.

The images provided are from the February issue of National Geographic Magazine. You can find more in National Geographic's photo gallery.

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