To most of us, medicine comes from the chemist. There we can stock up on blister packs of pills, tubes of ointments and bottles of innocuous-looking liquid. But the original sources of drugs can be much more exotic than your local pharmacist. The first HIV drug, for example, came from a sea sponge, while a heart disease drug is derived from the foxglove plant.
You can’t get much more exotic than venomous animals and that’s where scientists are turning their attention. Venoms are cocktails made up of between tens and hundreds of different toxins, usually proteins and smaller chains of amino acids similar to proteins called peptides, along with organic molecules, such as hormones, antibiotics and other compounds that are involved in the metabolic functions of living things. Venoms help animals to immobilise or kill prey, or neutralise predators in self-defence.
To qualify as venom, as opposed to poison, the toxin mixture must be ‘injected’ into another animal. Around 150,000 animal species have evolved the machinery to produce venom and inject it into prey. Some are familiar: snakes with their fangs, or bees and their stings. Others are less well known: the male duck-billed platypus with the venom-bearing spurs on its back legs; the toxic saliva of particular types of shrew; the beautiful but deadly cone snail releasing its harpoon-like proboscis into tiny fish on the seabed…
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