Because they may be extremely dangerous, snakes are feared by most humans, and for good reason. When a person is bitten by a snake, the venom might be fatal. But have you ever wondered how snake venom works or why it exists?
This page will give you an overview of snake venom's history and mechanism of action. You will then learn about its influence on medicine and its unexpected benefits!
1) Snake Venom
A) What is snake venom?
Possibly a ridiculous question, but not really!
Venom is a poisonous liquid that is yellow in color and is created in a gland that is linked to each snake hook. The following describes the complex mixture of proteins, peptides, and other organic and non-organic compounds that make up snake venom.
These chemicals have developed the ability to hurt, paralyze, or even kill. The main purpose of venom is to aid in the prey's digestion.
Each type of venomous snake has a distinctive venom. Despite the fact that these venoms are made up of a complicated variety of chemicals, there are three primary categories that they fall under:
- Cytotoxic: destroys body cells. Cytotoxins cause most or all of the cells in a tissue or organ to die, with a condition called necrosis.
- Neurotoxic: a chemical substance that is toxic to the nervous system. Neurotoxins work by disrupting chemical signals called neurotransmitters, which transmit information between neurons. Neurotoxins cause muscle paralysis which can also lead to breathing difficulties and death.
- Hemotoxic: a blood poison that has cytotoxic effects, and also disrupts normal blood clotting processes by destroying red blood cells. Hemotoxin can cause severe bleeding. The accumulation of dead red blood cells in the body can also disrupt the proper functioning of the kidneys.
Additionally, there are secondary types of chemicals that target particular cells and are found in all snake venoms but in reduced amounts:
- Cardiotoxic: damages heart cells, and can cause cardiac arrest.
- Myotoxic: dissolves muscle cells.
- Nephrotoxic: destroys kidney cells.
B) Venom injection
Most venomous snakes inject venom into their victim using their fangs, much like asp vipers do. By penetrating the tissue and allowing the venom to flow into the wound, the fangs are particularly effective at delivering venom.
Some snakes, like the cobra, have the ability to spit or spew venom as a kind of protection. Consequently, there are four basic parts to venom injection systems:
- Venom Glands: these specialized glands are found in the snake's head, and serve as sites for venom production and storage.
- Muscles: The muscles in the snake's head near the venom glands help to extract the venom.
- Canals: The canals (or "ducts") serve as a pathway for the transport of venom from the glands to the fangs.
- Hooks: these bony structures are teeth modified with canals, allowing the injection of venom when the snake is going to bite its prey.
In general, snakes are resistant to the effects of their own venom. This is because of a number of processes that stop the poisons in their venom from sticking to their cells or because of the design of their venom gland, which stops the poison from returning to the snake's mouth after a bite.
However, poisonous snakes are susceptible to the venom of other venomous snakes even when they are not susceptible to their own venom.
2) The Origins of Snake Venom
A) Why are snakes venomous?
Some snakes can attack their prey or protect themselves from predators using their venom. The ability to produce venom has evolved during millions of years of evolution.
Since they first appeared 54 million years ago, snakes have been a part of several ecosystems. Venomous snakes come in 200 distinct species today.
Random mutations that have developed as a result of evolution and environmental adaptations are what allow some snakes to manufacture venom. These mutations have survived because they offered a significant benefit!
It is thought that harmless genes present at the ancestor of the species were copied, leading to the evolution of snake venom. These fresh copies developed distinctive mutations during time, which gave them great toxicity.
Neofunctionalization is the process through which a copy of a gene acquires a new function that is distinct from the function of the original gene.
B) Adaptation to Venom
Since the snake can survive with these new genes, they are kept over time.
But a snake species doesn't strike it rich when it develops venom (which takes millions of years). Over time, the snake's prey and predators will become resistant to the venom or to the particular venomous species.
Better concealment, quicker reflexes to avoid dangerous animals, and even genetic resistance to venom are examples of this. Therefore, poisonous snakes cannot afford to stop evolving.
In actuality, a sort of "biological arms race" exists between predators and prey. And even then, minor tweaks at the individual level favor creatures that can withstand a deadly bite.
These animals will have a higher chance of reproducing and passing on their genetic heritage to their children if they are not killed by a poisonous snake lying under a rock. More creatures that are resistant to venom will develop as a result. Hence the requirement for ongoing adaption.
C) Humans and Snakes
Today, every snake species' venom evolution has been greatly influenced by humans. Climate change and human action are the primary causes of this evolution. The ecosystems where snakes reside are constantly changing as a result of both of these phenomena.
Snakes continue to live in their natural environments and have adapted to the burgeoning urban populations. As the earth heats, snakes have also been seen to travel further north.
Accidents involving man-eating reticulated pythons in Indonesia show that these changes could eventually raise the likelihood of snake attacks and bites.
Some snakes will become even more deadly as a result of this adaptation to people, while others will lose the ability to generate venom.
3) Venomous Snakes
A) Why are some snakes more venomous than others?
Perhaps you have come across the statement, "This snake has enough venom to kill 100 people." But how can you actually gauge an animal's toxicity?
The Desert Taipan, which possesses enough venom to kill nearly 200 people, is the most lethal snake to humans. However, there are numerous more species that are harmful to people. We recommend our list of the TOP 20 most venomous snakes in the world if you're interested.
Of course, it stands to reason that human testing has never been done on this! Instead, little quantities are tried first on mice, and then it is hypothesized how the outcomes would apply to people.
Viewing these figures with caution is advised! Considering that toxicity is a relative concept and can differ substantially between species. For instance, some snake venoms work far better on reptiles than on mammals.
This difference could be explained by the fact that, if a snake with such venom lives in an area with a lot of lizards, it will be more likely to kill reptiles quickly.
B) Why aren't all snakes venomous?
Given that venom is a highly successful survival mechanism, one might be curious.
Venom production calls for a lot of energy. For the production to be profitable, the snake must consume more food as a result of its output.
Sometimes a snake's deadly nature just hinders it from capturing additional prey. As a result, over time, that species' capacity to manufacture venom will decline since it is wasting its energy.
The loss of venom seen in pythons and anacondas serves as a prime example. These two animals now mostly obtain food through constriction.
There are also the "clever men of evolution" who are non-poisonous snakes that mimic highly venomous snakes in order to survive. This simple ruse has several advantages because it spares the copycat the additional energy required to produce venom.
The Milk Snake is a prime illustration. The very deadly Coral Snake has a vivid pattern that is strikingly similar to that of this harmless variety.
C) Venom: The Root Cause of our Fear of Snakes
Envenomation phobia runs in the family. Because individuals who avoided poisonous snakes were more likely to have old bones, it was passed on to us by our ancestors.
Therefore, due to psychological deterrent, venom can be an efficient defensive tactic in addition to promoting hunting and predation.
An animal will be less likely to be hunted again if it injects painful venom when it is assaulted. And if the venom is lethal, the predator will never again be able to hunt...
The offspring of the snake's predators can inherit the sense of threat and the fear of being bitten. According to studies, snakes have altered how humans and other primates grow their brains (of which we are part).
The existence of a stress reaction connected to the vision of an image or an object resembling a snake has been demonstrated in studies with macaques who have never encountered one.
In a similar vein, you might have seen movies of cats acting absurdly when they see cucumbers. It's possible that cats' brains react similarly to snakes' on monkeys' brains as they do to cucumbers.
And you had a hunch that a Survival Mechanism was being concealed by these amusing videos?
4) Venom and Medicine
The history of medicine has always been heavily influenced by snake venom. In reality, the Staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine, adopted the snake as a sign of medicine.
A) The Effects of Snake Venom on Humans
Due to the relevance of snakebite in medicine, snake venom is one of the most investigated substances. Over 150,000 people are killed by these animals every year, leaving 400,000 individuals with amputated limbs.
The internal communication of the body is halted by snake venom. It is made up of a mixture of poisonous compounds that, depending on the individual snake, can serve entirely different purposes.
The nerve toxin used by the mamba and cobra prevents nerve-muscle transmission, making it difficult for the victim to move or breathe.
The creation of antibodies by the body should enable it to protect itself from the venom. The issue is that while some venoms can kill in just two hours, it takes a week to manufacture a substantial amount.
Especially considering that stealth molecules make up snake venom. As long as it has not yet begun to affect the neural system, it cannot be detected by the body.
There are many antivenins available now that work to prevent snake bites. However, they continue to be a significant issue in many developing nations. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated its list of critical medications to include the currently available antivenom medications.
The snake is first "milked" in serpentaria to recover the toxic liquid before being used to create the anti-venom serum. Snake handlers take the venom out of the hollow fangs the reptile has buried in its upper jaw. After drying, the venom is then sold for $300 to $1,000 per gram.
Then, snake venom is injected into animals, mainly horses, to create anti-venom. These animals create antibodies that work to neutralize the venom's poisons.
The horse's body produces the antibodies, which are then taken out and refined before being put into people as serums. These steps help save lives.
But regrettably, this is not always possible, and some individuals may experience unfavorable side effects brought on the antibodies produced in the animals, such as serum disease (much like an Allergic Reaction that requires taking an Antihistamine).
In the most extreme situations, this can result in anaphylactic shock, necessitating immediate first assistance and a trip to the emergency department on the condition that one survives.
Even though it's still challenging to produce effective antidotes, scientists now understand how snake venom functions. The latter always affects the human body in the same manner; this is both a significant strength and a weakness of the later.
Future antivenoms may become more effective as a result of this. It is now quite likely that an antivenom will work against all snakes in a given location (such as Africa, Asia, America, etc.).
C) Immunity to Venom
Steve Ludwin, a rock singer, had the insane idea to inject himself daily with venom from the 35 snake species that are the most dangerous in the world! For 25 years, he has been doing this to improve his immune system. The performer is risking his life, yet his bizarre experience will be highly helpful to research.
An "Antibody Library" was recently developed by a group of researchers at the University of Copenhagen using copies of the antibodies that Ludwin's immune system produced in response to his injections of snake venom.
Currently, the library is being utilized to find antibodies that can counteract the poisons in venom. Some of these might be utilised in the creation of antivenoms for the treatment of snake bites.
However, the concept of consuming snake venom to build an immune to it is not new. Antiquity's Mithridates VI, a ruler, is reported to have consumed little doses of venom and poison for years out of fear of being poisoned to death.
This so the story goes, gave him the ability to become immune. He is also credited for creating the "Mithridate Remedy," a first-generation antidote. This material was a concoction of poisons that may be used as antidotes for poisonous snakes and other recognized harmful substances.
5) The Virtues of Snake Venom
Different molecular cocktails are present in various snake venoms. As a result, a significant amount of unique chemicals are produced, some of which can have an impact on the central nervous system, muscles, and blood. These compounds have a wide range of uses, according to scientists.
A) Snake Venom as Medicine
Humans have employed poisons for therapeutic purposes for a very long time. The enormous number of poisons found in snake venom has motivated contemporary science to create new medicines. Only seven medications derived from this deadly chemical have received approval thus far, despite their potential.
Indeed, creating medications derived from poisons is quite difficult. The time between original discovery and commercialization is lengthy, much like with other medications. Many projects fall apart during the "preclinical" stage or are abandoned during the clinical stage due to ineffectiveness or adverse effects.
Snake venom has a wide range of medical uses, including the following:
- Snake Venom for Cancer: The venom of rattlesnakes contains a substance called crotoxin, which can target and destroy cancer cells in an organism. The venom of this snake is used to create the cancer therapy CB24.
- Snake Venom for Blood Pressure: The venom of the Brazilian viper Bothrops Jararaca (or "Yellow Lancehead Viper"), contains a protein that blocks an enzyme responsible for blood pressure in humans and mammals.
- Snake Venom for Diabetes: The venom of the previous species could also be used in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
- Snake Venom for Nervous System Disorders: The neurotoxins contained in the Black Mamba venom could be useful in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
- Snake Venom and Morphine: Black Mamba venom is said to have analgesic properties comparable to morphine. However, the venom would not cause addiction, which is the main defect of morphine at present. Goodbye morphine, hello Mambalgin! (True).
- Snake Venom for Neuromuscular Disorders: in the 1960s, scientists discovered the molecular mechanism behind a serious muscle disease called Myasthenia, using the venom of the Taiwanese Banded Krait.
- Antivenom Manufacturing: it may seem obvious but no antivenom without venom. However the process of collecting venom and developing an antidote is laborious. It has remained virtually unchanged since the late 1800s.
B) Snake Venom in Cosmetics
Despite what it might seem, snake venom is now a necessity in the pharmaceutical sector, especially for lotions and ointments. This is mostly because it contains a lot of enzymes, peptides, and certain amino acids.
Due to its analgesic action, it was initially primarily utilized to treat inflammation and pain. The use of this unique chemical has increased significantly in recent years. It aids in the treatment of numerous illnesses:
- Varicose veins.
- Inflammation of muscles and tendons.
It has been proven that snake venom is a very beneficial agent in the treatment of psoriasis and skin infections.
The most recent study has led to the cosmetic business using snake venom. Under the brand name SYN-AKE, Swiss researchers have created a synthetic version of snake venom that is intended to relax facial muscles and ward off wrinkles.
Contrary to botox, which paralyzes the muscles, it ought to permit facial expressions and movement. This wrinkle cream would function somewhat similarly to a facial moisturizer.
Many high-end cosmetics now contain snake venom. It appears (or is promoted) as an easy, quick, painless substitute for traditional anti-aging treatments.
The safety of these same treatments, including botulinum toxin, is up for debate. The benefits of snake venom-based cosmetics have, however, not yet been proven by many scientific investigations.
Therefore, despite our fear of venomous snakes, which are typically the most threatening snakes, it has been shown that snake venom has many benefits, particularly in the medical and pharmaceutical fields.
Snake venom has been a part of the history of man ever since he was able to comprehend and interpret the universe, much like the symbolism of the snake. Even if this species still fascinates us, we must learn how to identify snakes in order to study it safely.