SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Next time you see a snake, especially if it’s venomous, try not to get too creeped out. Recently a paper published by a team of research scientists caused some excitement.
USF Biologist Mark Margres and his colleagues mapped the genome of the Tiger Rattlesnake. The serpent is the most toxic of the western desert’s snakes. They don’t live here in Utah, but you start finding them in Central Arizona, moving south to Mexico.
The project funded by the National Science Foundation is the most complete look at the venom gene regulatory network to date.
Scientists mapped the genetic instructions the snake uses to create venom proteins with modern technology. They’ve discovered snake venom components have medicinal applications and can help lead to treatments for disease.
There is a difference between poison and venom. Science divides the two like this: If it is injected into your body via fangs or a stinger, it is venom. If you touch it like on ivy or a frog, it is poison.
Dr. Helena Safavi, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Utah, is one of the world’s premier venom researchers. She says, “They basically generated a complete picture of all of the venom components in that animal.” She adds, “There are not that many complete genomes of venomous animals yet.”
The surprising discovery about the Tiger Rattler’s venom is that the snake only makes part of what it can create. In an evolutionary sense, it has simplified the mixture. Creating the most effective venom of all the rattlesnakes.
Dr. Al Savitzky is a Herpetologist at Utah State University (USU) specializing in Morphology and Chemical Ecology of Snakes, says, “What is unique about the Tiger Rattlesnake’s venom is it has eliminated all the additional components and concentrated the venom on the neurotoxins, the parts that interfere with nerve-muscle communication.
He continues, “The neurotoxins these snakes have are really the most lethal components of the venom.”
Savitsky explains, “those are the components of the venom that stop the physiological processes that keep an animal alive, they stop the communication between nerves and muscles, they interfere with breathing functions and that sort of thing, so they are dangerously lethal.”
But because it has the dormant genes of all the other components, theoretically, if the Tiger Rattler’s environment dictated, it could make some of the same components which occur in the Great Basin Rattlesnakes found in Utah.
Savitzky says in “in one of the reports about the Tiger Rattler, researchers referred to the process as ‘meat tenderizers,’ and that is important for a snake who is consuming a large prey item.”
Dr. Margres told the National Science Foundation, “Simple genotypes can produce complex traits; here, we have shown the opposite is also true — a complex genotype can produce simple traits.”
When most of us think about evolution, we sometimes think about how the technology works, it helps us move forward, but it’s always growing a bit harder to understand. What scientists learned from the rattlesnake is a bit different.
Savitsky explains, “The simple venom of the Tiger Snake we would call a more derived feature, it’s a feature that has evolved from a more complex condition to a more simple condition.
Savitzky adds, “There’s a sort of natural inclination to think of evolution as always moving from more simple to more complex, and that is certainly not the case, there are plenty of examples across the evolution of plants and animals, where they evolved from more complex conditions to more simple conditions, and that’s what we see here.”
Dr. Savitzky says, “What the researchers were saying is by understanding how this animal has suppressed the expression of certain venom genes that it has, we may be able to discover additional venom components that we couldn’t find in the venom itself. Perhaps there are clues in there to create compounds that could give us medical benefits.”
Snake venom compounds are used in various pharmaceutical applications or at least being studied for use in those applications. They include blood pressure regulation, anti-clotting compounds, anti-trauma compounds, and investigations into chemotherapeutic agents.
So what happens if you encounter one of Utah’s unnerving but potentially life-saving serpents? Dr. Savitzky has this advice:
“Most of our snakes are not venomous, the vast majority of the species are not venomous species, and the second thing they should keep in mind is, the snakes that we have here are not aggressive species, even the venomous snakes will not launch an attack on a person if they are not threatened, the only real risk anyone has from a venomous snake is actually stepping on it, or so close to it the snake feels itself to be threatened, and that is a very uncommon circumstance.”
He adds, “The best thing to do with any snake, venomous or non-venomous, would be to recognize what it is, take a good look at it, admire its beauty and give it a bit of space and walk around it at a safe distance and it will completely leave you alone.”