The Deadly Secrets Of Snake Venom Have Been Unlocked

The biological process behind venomous snake bites has finally been identified.

Britney Spears snake MTV VMAs
Snake charmer Britney Spears with a python draped over her neck at the 2001 MTV VMAs. Image Picture MTV/Creative Commons

Men have had a pretty fraught relationship with snakes since back in Biblical days when one of the slippery buggers convinced Adam to sample a few apples from the Tree of Life.

Ever since then, society has told us serpents are not to be trusted with everything from The Jungle Book to Indiana Jones painting these lizard/worm hybrids as all-round dicks.

Yet for all the depictions of snakes as sneaky, convincing and, at times, a little bit camp the main reason we should all be wary of snakes is the lethal poison many possess.

The venom found in the fangs by everything from Cobras to the dreaded Black Mamba can be pretty lethal, as most are only too aware.

So when it emerged that scientists from the Department of Bio and Health Informatics at the Technical University of Denmark had been researching exactly how these poisons work, with a view to creating more cures, loaded simply had to find out more.

Published in Scientific Reports, the research from PHD student Mikael Engmark makes for interesting reading.

“We’ve now found the weak spot in a wide range of nerve toxins that are the dangerous components in venom from mambas and cobras,” Engmark said.

And how has he done it exactly? Let’s let Engmark explain.

A still from Snakes On A Plane.
Snakes On A Plane Never fear Image New Line Cinema

In analysing snake venom, Engmark was able to highlight how snakes like the cobra and mamba, which are part of the viper family, use a nerve toxin to stop all communication between nerves and muscles.

The result? Muscle cramps and, in turn, an inability to move or, in extreme cases breathe.

Engmark outlined why this is often lethal: “The venom components are foreign substances in the human body, and just like other foreign bodies, the immune system might potentially react and produce antibodies to neutralise them. The problem is that when the immune system kicks in it takes about a week for the body to make adequate amounts of antibodies, while the victim may be dead within the hour.”

More chillingly, the research showed specifically why animals often struggle to fight the effects of the venom – it’s all about the fat that the toxin works by identifying and binding to the receptors located on nerve cells.

That's one big snake
That's one big snake You wouldn't want that on your bits.

Engmark explains again: “If they could bind to just anything, then the venom would never make us sick. The venom has developed not to interact with anything but its intended goal: the nerve cells. This have turned the toxins into a type of ‘stealth’ molecules that pass under the immune system’s radar until it hits its target. That’s why it’s difficult to make an antidote.”

The good news to be gleaned from this revelation though is that the discovery, coupled with further insight into the way antidotes also bind themselves to snake venom, could lead to the further development of more advanced anti-venom cures.

That does not stop snakes from being pretty terrifying for the foreseeable future though.

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Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.