Stories tagged venom

Deathstalker scorpion venom, combined with nanoscale particles of iron oxide, can slow the spread of BRAIN CANCER.

What is there not to love in that sentence? You've got scorpion venom, nano stuff, brain cancer...heck, I was hooked at the word Deathstalker.

Just so you know - the formal science way of saying the same thing is “Chlorotoxin Labeled Magnetic Nanovectors for Targeted Gene Delivery to Glioma”. You can find the article here.

Deathstalker Scorpion
Deathstalker ScorpionCourtesy Ester Inbar


4+ on the Schmidt Scale: Take that!
4+ on the Schmidt Scale: Take that!Courtesy Scott Camazine
Well, I understand that Science Buzz generally focuses on science in the news, as well as seasonal phenomena, and, frankly, this post doesn’t fall into either of those categories.

But yesterday I was starting to work on the next Object of the Month (I don’t want to spoil anything… but it’s “wasps’), and I came across an article on the tarantula hawk. The tarantula hawk is neither a hawk nor a tarantula—it’s a giant freakin’ wasp.

Growing up to 2 inches long, the tarantula hawk is one of the largest wasps in the world. It gets its name from its habit of paralyzing tarantulas, dragging the spiders back to their burrows (the wasps are that big), and then laying an egg on the tarantula’s living body. When the egg hatches, the wasp larva sucks the tarantula’s juices until it grows large enough to burrow into the hosts body. There it will eat the still-living spider’s organs, saving the vitals for last. When the wasp matures into an adult, it gives up its tarantula devouring ways, and lives off of fruit and nectar. How nice.

Anyway, the article also mentions that the tarantula hawk can have a stinger as long as 1/3rd of an inch, and that its sting is reported to be the second most painful sting in the world, according to the Schmidt sting pain index. (The Schmidt index was developed to the effects of insect venoms only, so I’m assuming that potentially fatal spider bites don’t count.) Naturally, the tarantula hawk’s position on the index begs the question, “What is the most painful sting?”

Answer: The bullet ant, so called because, supposedly, a sting from the bullet ant is like getting shot by a crossbow. I mean a gun. With bullets.

Native to central and South America, worker class bullet ants grow to about an inch, and are called “hormigas veinticuatro” by locals, or the “twenty-four [hour] ant” because the pain from a sting is supposed to remain unabated for a full day.

While the bullet ant will also bite, it delivers its sting the same way wasps and bees do, through a modified ovipositor on its abdomen (that’s all stingers are—egg-laying tubes evolved to inject venom).

The injected venom is a neurotoxin unique to the bullet ant: poneratoxin. A neurotoxin is a poison that affects the nervous system; poneratoxin interferes with the chemicals that allow nerve cells to send electrical signals to each other. So, when other insects and arthropods are stung with poneratoxin, they can be paralyzed (because, remember, you need nerves to control your muscles). When humans are stung with poneratoxin, they just experience extreme pain. Repeated stinging can lead to uncontrollable shaking, and temporary paralysis of the limbs.

But bullet ants aren’t generally aggressive, so how do we know about the affects of repeated stinging? Because some folks get themselves stung a lot. On purpose!

The Satere-Mawe people in Brazil use bullet ants as part of an adult-initiation tradition. (Or an initiation into adulthood. Whatever’s better.) Here:

Now, keep in mind, the tone of that video is pretty ridiculous. (That is, the “look at the weird stuff these weird people do” thing. We all do weird stuff, but other people’s weird stuff is just less familiar.) Also, if you go to the youtube page that video is hosted by, the description says that their hands “turn completely BLACK with poison.” That actually doesn’t make any sense, and it’s not true—the color is from charcoal.

Still, though… wild!

Oh, also, folks who have lived around the ants for a long time have used their stings to treat rheumatism (painful joints, etc), and have found that their bites are so strong that the ants’ mandibles can be used to pull the edges of a cut together, like stitches. The ant’s body is then twisted off, and the head (still biting) is left on the wound as a suture.

But we like the sting gloves. It’s news to me, right?


It's dreaming about biting things: And then clawing them.
It's dreaming about biting things: And then clawing them.Courtesy Ltshears
I know that the title of this post subjects the deadliness of the Komodo dragon to the entire spectrum of relative notions of danger, but be assured that all of them are accurate.

Did you think that the Komodo dragon was not deadly at all? Wrong. It is at least somewhat deadly.

Were you under the impression that the Komodo is about as dangerous as a baby? No, sir. The Komodo is about as dangerous as a dog with a gun in its mouth.

Have you been operating under the notion that a Komodo dragon is no more potentially dangerous than a monkey with a box of grenades? The joke is on you. Komodo dragons are as dangerous as Rambo with a box of grenades.

And so forth.

Mostly, though, if you thought that the Komodo dragon was dangerous only for its filthy mouth, you’ll be surprised to discover that its venom is also quite dangerous.

You may remember some of Science Buzz’s extensive Komodo dragon coverage, in which we make mention of the Komodo dragon’s famously dirty mouth. Komodo dragons routinely say words so filthy and embarrassing that they could (and do) make sailors blush and feel ashamed of their sexuality. The disgusting language that passes through it makes the average Komodo an ideal home for all manner of dangerous bacteria. When the Komodo bites its prey, some of that bacteria is passed into the wound, quickly resulting in a severe infection. This has been a pretty standard explanation of how the Komodo dragon is able to take down animals as large as wild boar and deer (also, being a 150 pound lizard helps, of course).

The field of Komodo dragon research is booming, however, and that group is never satisfied with old answers. With the help of a zoo’s terminally ill Komodo dragon, researchers have now determined that the toxic bacteria in the Komodos’ mouths is only the beginning of the story. Or at least an interesting chapter that isn’t totally vital to the plot of the story. Nope, it’s the venom, they argue, that’s the real killer.

Komodo dragons have a much weaker bite than crocodiles of similar size, the study revealed. But crocodiles are adapted to hold onto their prey. (To drown it, or break it, or whatever. I’m not a crocodile.) Komodos bite and then release. Their teeth create a nice gash, and specially modified salivary glands introduce the lizards’ venom into the wound. The venom has both anti-clotting and hypertensive agents in it. That means that the bite would both increase an attacked animal’s blood pressure, and prevent the wound from closing up. So the animal would bleed to death. Or it wouldn’t necessarily bleed to death, exactly; it would actually probably just bleed until it went into shock and fell over. Then it would get 150-pound lizarded to death. If it managed to survive all the biting, poisoning, and clawing, then it might have the chance to get a fatal infection from the mouth bacteria.

The last time I saw the Komodo dragon in the news, it was for an attack on a Indonesian fisherman, who died of blood loss before his friends could get him to a hospital. That sort of makes sense with this new study, I guess.

After analyzing living Komodo dragons, the scientists looked for similar anatomical structures (for venomous salivary glands) on the fossils of its extinct relatives. They found them on Veranus megalania. The megalania was pretty much just like the Komodo dragon, except that it was probably about 25 feet long, and might have weighed as much as a couple thousand pounds. This means that it would have been one of the largest venomous animals to ever live. It’s interesting to think that an animal that large would even need venom (It seems to be combining a couple different killing strategies, you know?), but I guess it doesn’t matter much, because the megalania went extinct about 40,000 years ago. This is about the same time that humans first arrived in Australia (where the megalania lived), so if the world works anything like an action movie, humans and megalania might have had at least a few epic battles. (One is happening in my head right now. Trust me, it’s awesome. Oh, no! Arthur just got bitten!)

It feels pretty good, doesn’t it, finally being on the leading edge of Komodo dragon research again.


A brown recluse: What do you suppose it's thinking about? I think I know.
A brown recluse: What do you suppose it's thinking about? I think I know.Courtesy Mean and Pinchy
You know what we love? Genitals. And I think you know which brand I’m talking about: the funny kind. And we just can’t get them out of our minds!

Take, for instance, some new research on spider venom. In addition to its long-established killing stuff properties, it turns out that some spider venom contains compounds that could aide the development of treatments for health issues ranging from arthritis to erectile dysfunction.

Whoa! Did I just type what I think I typed? “Erectile”? “Erectile dysfunction”? Whoa ho ho ho! Ha ha ha! Erectile dysfunction! That means that, you know, the elevator isn’t reaching the top floor! That, like, junk isn’t… Ha ha! Man, I love spiders! They are hilarious! Let’s see where else this research into comedy gold will take us.

It seems that some scientists at Cornell University have developed a new way of analyzing the molecular makeup of spider venom. Using “nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy,” the scientists were able to obtain detailed information on the molecular composition of spider venom, and, especially exciting, found entirely new molecules that had been overlooked in previous analysis of venom. The venom of the brown recluse spider, in particular, yielded some remarkable compounds.

“Remarkable compounds”? What is this? Get back to the erectile dysfunction! What happened to that stuff?

Hiding behind some larger molecules, the brown recluse venom was found to have some very small and interesting molecules called “sulfated nucleosides.” These molecules are quite similar to RNA, a basic component of our genetic material. Studying the sulfated nucleosides could lead to a better understanding of how brown recluse venom works.

Works at what? Curing impotence? Something like that? Gosh, it actually seems like this research was mostly about a new method of chemical analysis. But remember the part about, you know, wieners? Ah ha ha! Good stuff. Love it! In fact, the headline of any article about this research should focus on that incidental piece of information.

You’re welcome, scientists. We weren’t interested in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, so we changed the focus a little. Now you’ve given us what we want. (Genitals.)


The Platypus: It's watching you. Waiting for you to slip up.
The Platypus: It's watching you. Waiting for you to slip up.
The platypus, also known as “Wait… what?,” bears the distinction of being one of the very few poisonous mammals. The list also includes several types of shrew, the solendon, the slow loris (the elbows of which secrete a toxin which smells like sweaty socks - seriously), and, of course, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, who put M & M in the hospital for two weeks after delivering a bite just above the left knee.

Both male and female platypoda (check it out, it works) possess a large claw, or spur, on their hind legs. However, only the spurs of the males are venomous. The poison is only produced during mating season, and it is used to defend against predators, and to compete with other males for mates. A strike from a poisonous spur is not enough to kill an animal the size of a human, but victims often suffer incapacitating pain that can last for days or even months. And there is currently no antivenin available for platypus poison.

By studying the evolution of platypus venom, scientists think they can come closer to creating an effective treatment for it. Sequencing of the platypus venom genes shows that the poison evolved from by the “duplication from genes that were once involved in the immune system.” The venom, they have found, contains “defensin”-like proteins. “Defensin” proteins exist in the immune system of the platypus, and are produced as an antibiotic in the milk of some other marsupials.

The hope is that, by knowing the exact toxins involved, scientists can then find which proteins are associated with pain sensation in the victim. Drugs might then be found that could interfere with the venom’s interaction with these proteins.

Not content with simply developing a defense against the platypoda, scientists are also considering how to best develop an active offense against the poisoners – a sort of marsupial preemptive strike. Various methods, ranging from space based high-energy lasers to country-wide “roast” like events (designed to humiliate the platypoda), have been considered. Scientists warn, however, that the implementation of such ideas is still several years off, at least.

The Claw of the Platypus!