Monday, February 17, 2014

Snake oil salesmen

I came across this little story this morning, it's about one of those hell fire and brimstone preacher types in America who think it's a good idea to juggle rattlesnakes in the name of their so called "faith". This particular guy had a number of run-in's with the law and also a number of bites, one of which was so bad it caused one of his fingers to drop off. Eventually his luck ran out and he died of a snake bite last week for which he had refused medical treatment, what an idiot.

Anyway, I don't want to dwell on this person and his reptile fetishes what struck me more about the story was just how awesome snake venom is, a true marvel of the evolutionary process, a specialisation that allows animals with severely restricted mobility (i.e. snakes) to capture prey that can easily out run, out swim or out fly them. In evolutionary terms venom seems to be a highly modified kind of saliva and contains a complex mixture of proteins, enzymes and other chemicals some of which are adapted to particular biological functions within particular prey species. Generally venom knocks out the capability of the prey to escape or fight, usually this means by paralysing the victim or at least slowing it down enough to enable it to be tracked and followed by the snake. In some cases the venom also acts as a digesting agent, helping to convert the hapless prey into organic mush prior to being eaten by the predator.

It's these specific biological actions that makes some venoms useful to medical science. Pharmacologists have discovered that by isolating certain chemicals from the venom of certain species of snake it's possible to cherry pick desirable characteristics such as suppression of blood clotting that helps people with high blood pressure etc. In addition to this they have also discovered that it's possible to trigger an immune response to venom by extracting and diluting it and then injecting it into a person who then becomes able to resist the worse effects of the real thing. Many lives have been saved through this research in places like Australia and India where a staggering number of people are bitten (around 400,000 per year!)

It's amazing that this fascinating product of evolution can be exploited by humans for such diverse purposes, on the one hand we have a completely perverted and dishonest side-show, designed to convince people of imaginary powers and extract money from them. On the other hand we have truly useful and practical scientific research that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives regardless of race, creed or culture; the contrast between our past and our future could not be greater.

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