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Times 29 Sep
Snake venom production varies with prey
By Tania Tan
YOU really are what you eat. Using poisonous snakes, scientists at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have shown that the type of venom produced by these reptiles depends directly on their prey.
Professor Manjunatha Kini, of the NUS department of biological sciences, and his team tracked the changes in venom composition in several land and sea snake species - down to the genetic level - using sophisticated protein analysis.
They found land snake venom has a wide array of toxins to match the snake's diverse prey.
That of the sea snake, however, targets mainly the nervous system - the best way for the creature to snare its diet of fish.
While the genetic blueprint for the reptiles has remained relatively constant over generations, genes which carry instructions for venom production can evolve at a surprising pace - possibly up to 10 times quicker depending on the species.
Results of their findings were published in this month's edition of online scientific journal BMC (Bio-Med Central) Evolutionary Biology.
Prof Kini and his team observed that land snakes, which feed on anything from rodents to birds to other reptiles, have up to 20 different types of toxin, including those that cause paralysis, internal bleeding or heart attacks.
However, sea snakes like Lapemis curtus (above) prefer fast-acting neurotoxins - which quickly destroy the fish nervous system - ensuring their catch does not swim away.
The results of the test help give scientists a better understanding of how snake venoms work and evolve - hopefully leading to discovery of potent therapeutic drugs in the future, said Prof Kini.
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