How Does Snake Venom Work?
What is the snake venom made of? How much venom do snakes inject when they strike? Why and how are venomous snakes important? Does snake venom therapy really work? But most importantly, how does snake venom work?
My name is Author Pourandokht Mazaheri, and I am a snake enthusiast and a writer for the Snake store’s team of herpetologists. My keen interest in snakes has led me to years of engagement with the care and conduct of research on a variety of snake species across the world- particularly focused on their most magnetic aspect: snake bites and the lethal yet healing snake venom proteins. This article is brought to you to explain and clarify the function of snake venom in both snake’s and human’s lives, and the benefit of the rather undisclosed beauty elixirs, extracted from the most fatal venoms.
As a neurotoxic compound, the combination of proteins and enzymes present in the snake venom composition produce a debilitating effect on the nervous system- in addition to destroying cells on the bite puncture and venom injection area. Although the severity of the consequences depend both on the receiver of the snake bite and the venomous serpent species.
This article shines a light on the following subtexts;
- A comprehensive overview of snake venom chemical composition and function
- Biological journey of the snake toxicology
- An epistemological history of snake venom
- Benefits and medicational use of venom proteins in modern culture
Let's have a closer look on this esoteric topic below:
1- Snake Venom
a) What is Snake Venom?
It may seem a silly question, but it's not stupid!
Snake venom is a yellow toxic liquid that the fang glands produce. The venom comprises a complex mixture of proteins and peptides. Other organic and inorganic molecules mutate to immobilize, harm, or kill. The venom is primarily used to aid the snake’s digestion of its prey.
Different species of Venomous Snake produce specific venom classified as complex molecules, including;
- Cytotoxic: Destroys cells in the body. Cytotoxins cause most or all tissue and organ cells to die, caused by an abnormality called necrosis.
- Neurotoxic: Toxic to the nervous system, this chemical disrupts the chemical signals, neurotransmitters, that transmit information between neurons. Neurotoxins paralyze muscles, leading to breathing difficulties and can be fatal.
- Hemotoxic: This blood poison's cytotoxic effects destroy red blood cells which disrupt normal blood coagulation processes Therefore, hemotoxin can cause severe bleeding. Accumulated dead red blood cells can also interfere with healthy kidney functions.
Snake venoms contain smaller amounts of other molecules that target specific cells, including:
- Cardiotoxicity: damages the heart cells and can cause heart failure.
- Myotoxin: dissolves muscle cells.
- Nephrotoxic: destroys kidney cells.
b) Venom Injection
Most poisonous snakes inject their prey with venom using their fangs. The fangs effectively deliver venom by piercing the skin tissue, allowing the poison to flow into the wound while other snakes spit venom, for example, the Philippine Cobra. Venom injection systems comprise four main elements:
- Venom Glands: These are behind the snake's head, where the venom is produced and stored.
- Muscles: These are behind the glands and assist the snake to inject the venom.
- Duct: These assist in the transportation of venom between the glands and fangs.
- Fangs: These sharp teeth include a duct allowing the snake to inject venom into its victim.
Snakes are not usually susceptible to their venom because of the mechanisms that prevent venom toxins from attaching to their cells. Furthermore, the venom gland is structured to prevent the substance from returning to the mouth when the snake bites.
Although snakes are not vulnerable to their own venom, they are vulnerable to the venom of other venomous snakes.
2- The Origins Of Snake Venom
a) Why are snakes venomous?
Some snakes use their venom to attack prey or to defend themselves against predators. Venom production has developed over millions of years of evolution.
Snakes have existed for over 54 million years in the world's ecosystems. 200 different species of venomous snakes exist today.
Random mutations in snake venom have developed over time due to evolution and adaptations to the environment. Such mutations continue to be a huge advantage!
Snake venom is believed to have developed after replicating specific genes of the species that were originally harmless. These variations gained unique mutations over time developed by high toxicity.
b) Adapting to the venom
The newly mutated genes gave snakes an advantage to conserve and survive over time.
It takes millions of years for the venom to develop in a snake specie, while the snake's prey and predators develop resistance against the venom. Quicker reflex actions against venomous animals, improved camouflage and Genetic Resistance to venom mean venomous snakes must continue mutating and adapting to survive.
Predators and prey are in a never-ending battle, a "biological arms race" meaning minor changes at the individual level allow some animals more chances of surviving a venomous bite.
If an animal survives a poisonous snake bite, the snake has a better chance of passing its gene pool to offspring, which will increase venom-resistance in other animals.
c) Humans and snakes
Human activity and climate change are major influences on the evolution of snake venom and continually change snake ecosystems.
Snakes remain in their natural environment and migrate further north as the world warms. Such developments could see more snake attacks and snake bites in the future, as happened when a South-Asian man was devoured by Reticulated Pythons. However, snake evolution could also see the reduction or loss of poison in highly venomous species.
3- Venomous Snakes
a) Why do some snakes have more venom?
If you're a fan of snakes, you may have heard the saying "this snake can kill a hundred people" and wondered why?
Scientists theorize the venom of the Inland Taipan is the most dangerous for humans, so toxic it can kill up to 200 people with one bite!
This has obviously never been tested on humans! These estimates are based on tests that involved small amounts of venom tested on mice.
b) Why aren't all snakes poisonous?
It's an interesting question, given that venom is an effective tool for survival.
It takes a lot of energy to produce venom, so producing more must benefit the satisfy the snake with food. Just because a snake is venomous doesn't mean it will catch more prey. Its ability to produce venom will fade as it wastes energy.
Pythons and anacondas have lost their ability to produce venom and now use constriction to smother and devour their prey.
Meanwhile, "Little Evolutionary Cunning Snakes", nonvenomous snakes, exist to look like highly venomous snakes to guarantee their survival. This clever camouflage gives the 'imposter' additional energy to produce poison. An example is the Milk Snake, a harmless species similar in appearance to the highly venomous Coral Snake.
c) Why do we fear snakes?
Austrian, German, and Swedish scientists have researched why humans are so afraid of snakes and conclude that these fears are hereditary. For example, a 6-month-old baby may be fearful when they see these animals, even if they have never experienced them in real life and are unaware of their danger.
To support this theory, scientists presented pictures in similar colors of flowers, spiders, snakes, and fish, to twenty 6-month-old babies. Measurements of dilation in the babies' pupils were noted as they viewed the pictures. It was found that there was more dilation in the children's pupils when they saw spiders or snakes.
Pupil dilation signals stress or fear, suggesting that a child is predisposed to be frightened by spiders and snakes. This fear may increase if the child's parents have such phobias.
4- Venom And Medicine
The history of medicine has always highlighted the importance of snake venom. This is clear as far back as Rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine when the snake symbolized medicine.
a) The effects of snake venom on human blood
Extensive research on snake venom is one of the most studied because it signifies the medical importance of snake bites. Every year, venomous snakes kill over 150,000 people and cause 400,000 amputations worldwide.
Snakes comprise cocktails of venomous substances that have different functions depending on each serpent, which stops the human body's internal communication. The mamba and cobra's neurotoxins block communication between nerves and muscles, limiting the victim's ability to move or breathe.
The human body can produce antibodies to defend itself against venom, but it takes a week to produce an effective amount, while some venoms kill in under 2 hours.
b) Is there an anti-venom?
Several treatments including anti-venoms are highly sought after in many countries. Unfortunately, developing countries lack this remedy against snake bites. The World Health Organization (WHO) list has added anti-venom as an important medicine.
To produce an anti-venom, you would logically need a venomous snake. The liquid needs to be extracted by holding the snake’s jaw as it bites into a container and releases the venom. It needs to dry before it is sold on.
Horses produce antibodies in response to toxins in snake venom. When the antibodies develop in the horse's body, they are collected to create an anti-venom serum. This can be injected into human beings effectively although some patients may experience side-effects.
Modern scientists know how snake venom works, even these effective antidotes are complex to produce. The human body responds in the same way, which is a great strength but also a weak point. It is hoped that future anti-venom research may produce an anti-venom that works against all snake types.
c) Immunity to venom
Celebrity Steve Ludwin purposely allowed himself to be bitten by thirty-five of the world's most toxic snakes. During these dangerous experiments, Ludwin's body produced antibodies in response to the toxic bites. His actions helped scientists to develop anti-venoms and increase their knowledge about these substances.
The ingestion of snake venom to develop immunity is not new. A king of antiquity, Mithridates VI of Pontus, ingested small amounts of venom and poison for years to develop immunity in case there was a poisonous murderous attempt on his life.
Legend says this immunity led to the first antidote known as the "Mithridate Remedy", a mixture of antidotes against known venomous reptiles and toxic substances.
5- The Benefits Of Snake Venom
Could deadly poisons help to save lives? Or reduce pain, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease? Venoms could assist in many areas of health care.
a) Snake venom as medecine
Chinese medicine believed that venoms can also heal human beings and snake venom research proposes scientifically validated therapeutic applications. However, only seven drugs have been approved to date, despite the potential drugs that could be derived from this toxic substance.
Medical applications of snake venom vary:
- Diabetes: Medical treatments of Type 2 diabetes can benefit from toxins in the Bothrops Jararaca's venom.
- Kidney disease: The Black Mamba's venom contains a toxin capable of acting on kidney receptors to reduce cysts. This toxin could help sufferers of polycystic kidney disease, an incurable illness.
- Neuro-Muscular Dysfunction: The molecular mechanism that causes Myasthenia gravis, a serious muscle disease was discovered in the 1960s. This was achieved through scientific research involving venom from the Common Krait.
- Painkiller: The Black Mamba's venom could also help to produce an improved version of morphine. The venom contains a molecule that could be used in chronic and acute pain relief, acts in a non-opioid way with a decreased risk of dependency.
b) Snake venom: a new anti-wrinkle product?
The beneficial effects of a cream derived from snake venom include tripeptide, a facial muscle relaxant. This provides effective anti-wrinkle effects, creating a cosmetic comparable to Botox. Both products act on a similar principle and induce relaxing effects which instantly reduce wrinkles and fine lines.
6- Get More of the Perilous Beauty of Serpent
You have learned about the science of serpentine poison, and consequences of a snake bite as a systematic physical and biological agent, once endured by an ill-fated specimen. Looking at the journey of serpents through biological lenses as well as human perspective, you are aware that this lethal concoction secreted from the serpent’s salivary glands also has a silver lining to it; you are now one of the few that are familiar with the benefits of snake venom, including its medical and cosmetic uses in modern culture.
Drawing attractive aesthetics from snakes does not end at the science of medicine; a timeless bijouterie staple, the Snake Rings creations feature enigmatic elegance, and said to bestow its symbolic significance- from purity, love, transformation and protection.
With infinite and alluring benefits, click on the image below to discover more of the serpentine benefits and how you could incorporate them into your own life👇🏽