Snake Venom: Complete Study
Have you ever asked yourself what makes up the snake venom? What makes the effect of venomous snakes bite different from the other? If they are so deadly, why is a poisonous snake symbol of pharmaceutical science? Are there any benefits in the fierce snake venom? If yes, how can the snake venoms that kill save lives?
My name is Michael Cook, a herpetologist and a member of the Snake Store’s research group. In addition to my personal interest in all snakes, venomous species hold their own peculiarities, unrivalled in the entire animal kingdom. They can produce toxins that can be fatal to even other snakes, while the individual snake remains unaffected. If you have come across a snake venom cosmetic product, or wondering why snakes have been linked to medicines, this article answers all your questions about snakes and their dangerously fascinating venoms.
Although snakes’ venom is harmful in nature, it is a source of the life-saving anti-venom. Besides antidotes, they are used in production of modern medicines for treating hypertension, central and muscular neuro diseases like muscle weakness disorder and Parkinson, painkillers, cosmetics and more.
This article explains the following topics;
- Snake venom definition and its administration by snakes to their victims
- Natural evolution and origins of snake venom
- A look at the biological causes of snake venom potency
- A look at the influence of poisonous snakes on genetics, habitats and non venomous species
- Snake mutation impact of its preys and predators including humans
- Development of antivenom, and building immunity
- Other medicines and beauty products made with snake venom
Now, let’s take a closer look;
1- Snake Venom
Snake venom is known for its highly complex chemicals and physiological structure for venom injection. Each venomous snake species is armed with a peculiar set of organic and mineral molecules. However, these toxins have been categorized into three main subclasses according to their regional impact on their prey. Snakes themselves are immune to their own toxicity, but display advanced mechanisms to injure, kill or immobilize their prey. Interested in the details of the snake venom, the following section answers all your questions on the venom composition and how it is injected.
a) What is Snake Venom?
At first this may seem like a banal question but after giving it some thought, you realize it may not be so!
The venom produced by snake fangs is a yellow liquid mixture, excreted from the glands on each side of the upper jaw. This toxic liquid is a combination of proteins, peptides, enzymes and other organic compounds as well as minerals. Generations after generations, snakes have evolved these substances in response to their correspondent ecosystem in order to defend, harm and kill. Although the principal function of venom is similar to our stomach acids; to help digestion and breaking down of organic tissues.
The composition and effects of venom changes across different species. However, the pharmacological classification of snake venom includes three main types;
- Cytotoxic based venoms: This category targets cell-level destruction, by paralyzing the function or complete dissolution of tissue that comes in contact with the venom locally. This venom results in organ and tissue necrosis.
- Neurotoxic: This chemical acts as an aggressive suppressant for the central nervous system. Neurotoxins function by creating a disturbance in nerve endings and signal transmissions of both motor and sensory neurotransmitters. As a result, the victim's body shows complete or partial paralyzation. Based on the potency and chemical composition, these effects can be temporary or permanent.
- Hemotoxic: The effects of this variety of venoms are directed towards the circulation of blood and the coronary system. Blood pressure and disturbance in blood coagulations, tissue necrosis, swelling and excess bleeding are among the consequences of coming in contact with Hemotoxic.
Despite the category of snake species based toxins, a series of subservient molecules are a common composition in all snake venoms which impose an effect on particular cells. Here is a brief outline of these secondary molecules;
- Cardiotoxic: As the name indicates, it appoints an adverse effect on the cardiac system and heart cells, resulting in cardiac arrest.
- Myotoxic: These peptides target the muscular cells, resulting in tissue necrosis.
- Nephrotoxic: By draining into the bloodstream, these toxins cause rapid malfunction of kidneys and dissolution of renal cells.
b) Injection of Venom
Most venomous snake species inject their poison by pushing their long fangs into their victims’ tissue, such as Asp vipers and Elapids. The physiology of snake fangs has evolved into a complex organ for efficient venom injection; a snake fang’s sharp points pierce through the tissue with little muscular force involved, and even through animals’ thick leather. The integrated gland tubes shoot the toxin into the tissue once the fangs have been inserted. A few species of snakes can make use of their venom even from a distance. Snakes, such as the spitting cobra, spray venom as a defence or hunting mechanism. The mechanism of venom delivering has been defined into a four-element system, including;
Venom Glands: Embedded in the upper jaw, these glands are responsible organs for production of toxicants as well as its storage.
- Muscles: A venomous snake head’s muscles, particularly the muscular arrangements around its jaws, are responsible for inserting the fangs, and forcing the flow of injection.
- Channels: Snakes have developed a sophisticated duct system to maximize efficiency of their venom’s application.
- Hooks or Fangs: A modification of tooth structure, fangs are sharp organs channeled with a centralized tube for the timely transport of venom.
As an evolutionary rule, snakes are not affected by their own venom. Their cells are protected from the aggressive effects of venom by several physiological mechanisms, such as the placement of glands which prevents the venom from reciprocating back to the serpent’s mouth. Although all the snake species are unguarded against another snake’s venom in case of receiving a bite in territorial fight or preying on one another.
Poisonous to others while harmless to itself; snakes are enigmatic creatures in contrast with the vulnerability of most of the members in the animal kingdom. The snake venom system is often deadly, though highly sophisticated for their particular purpose. These species have evolved in response to their environmental demands. For a complete understanding of nature’s secret for snakes’ mutation and natural selection, read the following section.
2- The Origins of Snake Venom
One of the oldest residents of earth, evolution of snakes and their toxic-producing evolution started over 90 million years ago. Their salivary glands turned into toxin producing organs and their teeth grow into long organs much similar to injection needles- only stronger and specialized for flinching surfaces. Let’s have a look at the origins of serpentine ancestry and gene selection that resulted in present day snake species.
a) Why are Snakes venomous?
Venom is primarily used as a dietary aid and hunting their prey, or as a defense mechanism against their natural predators. Following million years of genetic selection, the perfection of venom mechanism has been a result of biological evolution.
There is much speculation on exactly the exact years that snakes have been around. Most scientists agree that the first snakes existed over 160 million years ago, although they flourished into a kingdom around 90 million years from present. Today, over 200 classified species dwell across the earth's surface in a variety of habits. It is suggested that Random Evolution was the cause of the appearance of the snake's venomous glands, which later was perfected through natural selection as an advantage to the race, such as the horns for the buck deers or long beaks of hummingbirds.
The snake venom revolution theory explains further that an odd copying of initially harmless genes resulted in a notch in the replicas of parent DNA and mutation of salivary glands into poisonous fangs and hence the so-called Great Toxicity. In biological terms, the process of gene mutation and its later adaptation to environmental factors is known as Neofunctionalization.
The laws of evolution marked these poisonous glands as a survival advantage, and were later modified or simply conserved for the next generations.
Although the avolution considered not only the snakes and their benefits from their venomous modifications; consequently, the snake’s prey and predators were nudged towards gene mutation that safeguarded them against the snake bites or poisons’ effect. Some of these anomalies were selected as an environmental adaptation such as changing the habitats to snake-inaccessible locations, establishing physical reflexes and the most evident example, building complete tolerance to the snake bite like the snake devouring mongooses. Hence the evolution game remains an unstoppable process between the snakes and corresponding animal species.
Whether a prey or a predator, each animal faces a constant struggle, which is otherwise noted as a “biological arms race”. Natural evolution is a gradual process that advances on both sides as a contribution to nature’s biodiversity. Natural selection produces small gene selection that goes a long way in the survival battle.
In effect, the more adaptable creatures to snake bite survive and have a chance of passing down their resistance worthy genes to the next generation; what is called as the winning Genetic Heritage. This way, each coming generation is armed with resistance against snake venom and resulting in permanent adaptation.
b) Adaptation to Venom
The laws of evolution marked these poisonous glands as a survival advantage, and were later modified or simply conserved for the next generations.
Although the avolution did not only consider the snakes and their benefits from their venomous modifications. Consequently, the snake’s prey and predators were nudged towards mutionations that safeguarded them against the snake bites or poisons’ effect. Some of these mutations were environmental adaptation such as changing the habitats to snake-inaccessible locations, evolving physical reflexes and the most evident example, building complete tolerance to the snake bite like the snake devouring mongooses. Hence the evolution game remains an unstoppable process between the snakes and corresponding animal species.
Whether a prey or a predator, each animal faces a constant struggle otherwise noted as a "biological arms race". Natural evolution is a gradual process that advances on both sides as a contribution to nature’s biodiversity. Natural selection causes small gene selection that goes a long way in the survival battle. In effect, the more adaptable creatures to snake bite survive and have a chance of passing down their battle worthy genes to the next generation; what is called as the winning Genetic Heritage. This way, each coming generation is armed with resistance against snake venom and resulting in permanent adaptation.
c) Humans and Snakes
Humans are too a part of natural evolution and have influenced the snake species’ adaptation. The deliberate altering of the human race is seen in the rise of global temperatures and manipulation of ecosystems that collectively have resulted in a rapid modification of snake genes.
Snakes remain loyal to their natural habitats, even though surrounded by urban advancements in the suburbs of ever-growing cities. Scientists have also observed a north-wise migration of some snake species followed by global warming.
The increased contact of snakes and humans has led to an upsurge in the reports of human snake bites and in worse occasions, being ingested whole such as the man-eating reticulated Pythons in Indonesia.
It is predicted that such adaptation would lead into a stronger poison mutilation of some snakes, while others may face a loss of venoms.
From the first snakes ever existed, until the gene alterations of venomous species through millions of years, and until the modern world largely affected by human activities, snakes have come a long way. The fascinating mutation has touched both snakes and interlinking animals. But with all these explanations, why are some snakes still more venomous than others? Learn more about the venomous snake and the reasons behind their levels of toxicity below.
3- Venomous Snakes
Nature has its own gifts to its large correlated chain of preys and predators. A highly venomous snake may be equipped with a large dose of venom to tackle position resistant enemies such as a komodo dragon. Or a harmless snake may resemble a fierce venom species only to scare off its predators. This deadly occurrence or pain inducing event has had such an impact that animals and humans that they exhibit alarmed responses even in the young ages. Wanting to uncover some of nature’s mysterious about the snake venom and the inherited fear of this creature, the following section might just fascinate you.
a) Why are some snakes more venomous than others?
Have you ever heard the phrase; this snake has enough venom to put down a hundred men? This saying goes for the fierce Inland Taipan venom. But how accurate is this unconventional measure of toxicity?
Desert Taipan are noted as the most fatal snake species to humans, but there are other highly toxic species that are life threatening as well; sea snakes, pythons, saw scaled vipers, mambas- only to name a few.
Such toxicity measurements are exclusively based on human experience and examining the quantity and potency of a snake’s venom. While practical tests have not been carried out on humans for obvious reasons, proportional doses are administered to mice to outline the toxicity ratios.
Although the venom toxicity of every snake species and announced figures are based on relativity and not to be considered as accurate; for instance, some animals are more vulnerable compared to other species, when subjected to the same snake venom exposure. Also, the snakes display a more potent venom if they live in lizard and other snake habitats such as arid landscapes due to the high resistance levels of these creatures.
b) Why aren't all snakes venomous?
You may still wonder, as a highly efficient survival tool why some snakes are non venomous? Venom production is a high metabolized mechanism and requires more energy intake in the form of food. In some habitats, snake venom does not serve them in their hunting quests. So natural selection has leaped over the evolution of poisonous glands for some species, while others lost their venom production abilities due to dietitian insufficiency over time.
For instance, Pythons and Anacondas have lost their venomous nature as their food hunting is performed largely by their muscles known as constriction.
Another form of mutation was tricking the prey into mistaking a non venomous snake for a venomous variety, this was humorously called as "Little Evolutionary Cunning Snakes”. Although an unfounded trick, it works effectively on a survival level as the predators may be pushed off by their poisonous appearance. While an practical gene selection, these species benefit from a venomous look without having to spend the extra energy on the costly process of venom production. Milk Snake is an evident example of the cunning gene mutation; this species features almost an identical look to the fatally venomous Coral Snake.
c) The Venom: the Deep Cause of our Fear of Snakes
Fear passes down by hereditary genes to serve a survival mechanism. Similarly, fear of snakes has been passed down from our wildlife inhabiting ancestors who soon learned to avoid snakes. Apart from dietary assistance, venom is a defense mechanism that creates psychological intimidation that gets the message across for the generations to come.
Receiving a painful injection of venom, if not fatal, also leaves a remark on the predators to avoid similar appearances. In case of fatality, the predator does not get a second chance.
Aggressive feelings such as anger and fear can also be passed down as heredity to the offsprings of snake hunters. Scientists believe our fear of snakes was a part of a hereditary evolution in the primates, including species of monkeys, apes and humans. An interesting research was performed on a group of Old World Monkeys, or macaques. Although they had never encountered snakes, they showed a stress reaction when a snake image was displayed or snake-like objects were introduced to them.
These occurrences are common in domestic animals and household pets. Their survival mechanism is yet reproduced by parents with millions of years of wilderness information. They may produce reactions that have no meaning to us, such as a comical video of a can that shows an exaggerated reaction to a cucumber. The cat’s brain is possibly producing the same stress reaction as the monkeys in our experiment. Now next time that you watch a funny animal video, you may look at it with an scrutinizing eye and its relation to encoded survival reflexes.
We have learned the reason for extreme potency of some snake species venoms and the gene selection effects on other snakes, preys, predators and humans. However, human beings have learned to manipulate nature by their higher level of intelligence and mending nature and its fierce facade into its own benefit. Aside from grasping the effects of snake venom of the corporal reactions, we can cure ourselves from most venoms while extracting this deadly concoction and turning it into healing mixtures. Here is how;
4- Venom and Medicine
For centuries, snakes have been associated with healing and medicine across the globe. The very symbol of pharmaceutical and medicine is derived from snakes; a symbol left behind from the ancient Greek and the Staff of Asclepius, the Helenic god of medicine.
a) The Effects of Snake Venom on Humans
Snake venom has been one of the most curious subjects for medical researchers, and countless studies have been carried out to analyze and understand it. Some of this research based dedication is related to the high statistics of animal and human deaths by snake bites. According to WHO, from 81,000 to 138,000 human deaths are snake related, leaving out the high numbers of permanent and temporary injuries, and countless wild and domestic animals.
Snake Venoms are designed to target a certain bodily function according to the venom’s chemical nature. It is a concoction of poisonous elements that differs between each snake species. Cobras and the Black Mamba are facilitated with toxins that disturb and destroy the nervous system, resulting in blockage of muscular neurotransmitters which displays as immobilized breathing, movement and finally heartbeat.
Similar to several other mammals, the human body is equipped with an anti venom defense system by producing antibodies. Although the down part of the system is the speed of antibody production, while some snake bites can kill a person in only two hours, the body would take up to a week to produce enough to fight the toxins back.
Snake venom molecules are further enhanced with Stealth Molecules that leave them undetectable to the bodily cells until the signals reach the victim’s nervous system.
Antivenins are medically crafted medicines to fight back against snake bites. While there is an extensive development in manufacture and proficiency of antivenoms, snake related fatalities remain an issue, particularly in the developing countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes the antivenom class as essential medicines.
The process involved in antidote production starts with extraction of snake venom in Serpentariums. The deadly venom producing snakes are driven to bite a hollow and sterile container by penetrating their fangs through it. Later, the venom is dried under hygienic conduction, packaged, and sold at high prices. A gram of dried snake venom costs anywhere from $300 to $1000.
The anti venom production includes another set of donor animals to produce serum with non-fatal antibodies. Horses are often used as hosts due to their enormous size and ability to resist high doses. After a certain time, there is a surge of antibodies in the donor animal’s blood which is extracted and purified from red blood cells with a centrifuge.
The purified serum is administered to humans as an antivenom, a process that has saved the lives of thousands of people so far. While it seems like an ultimate solution, a small percentage of antivenom receivers develop an allergic reaction known as serum sickness. If the condition is severe, this reaction may result in hypersensitivity and anaphylactic shock. This is why most antivenom clinics suggest close observations up to two weeks after antivenom administration. If this allergic shock is not treated in time, it can lead to general shock, cardiac arrest and death.
Although the high costs, inevitability of a certain snake antivenom and lack of nearby anti venom centers are other factors contributing to a high number of snake related fatality.
On the medical side, scientists are on a ceaseless verge to yet identify and solve the drawbacks of antivenoms. The same venom of a certain species features the exact effect each time on human cells, but the problem lies with many snake species and lack of the cure’s availability every time. Moreover, the victim may not see or recognize the snake species each time they are bitten. This factor has pushed the researchers to develop more efficient antivenoms for an ideal anti venom that is functional against all venomous snake bites on a regional level.
c) Venom Immunity
Many technologists have claimed that reaching a snake vaccine is not so unrealistic nowadays. This is to say that human beings can build flawless immunity against snake bites. While the moral aspects impose a barrier to direct examinations on humans, some individuals have gone beyond their boundaries of fear.
Steve Ludwin, a world famous Rock Singer also named as the snake-man, has been injecting himself with a dose of snake venom on a daily routine over the past 25 years. His body has been exposed to over 35 venomous of the most fatal snake species worldwide. He has planned this practice to strengthen his immunity with the help of several physicians. Sounds crazy? It may be! But these debate-rising endeavours have resulted in very useful scientific progressions in means of antibody creation. The research team of the University of Copenhagen has gathered a “Antibody Library”, solely based on the antibodies that Ludwin’s immune system has created over the past two-and-a-half decades. This library provides a valid blueprint for the human-produced antibodies and protein chains that are efficient in antivenom development.
The original idea of building immunity against poisonous snakes dates back to the ancient eras; Mithridates VI, the roman king, feared his death by a poisonous snake; a vision which haunted him after a prophecy. The legend has it that he gained immunity against snake fatality by similar procedure, ingesting small sums of snake venom to build physical indifference. Today, he is regarded as the first innovator of antidotes which goes by the name of “Mithridate Remedy”. His legacy of antivenom included a mixture that was effective against poisonous reptiles, particularly snakes.
The battle against snake venom has been an ancient one, keeping its importance fresh even to modern day. To cure the snake venom fatality, countless scientists, researchers and even musicians and kings have experimented with the subject. Besides its fatality, snake venom features other medical and beautifying benefits. Read on to learn about the virtues of snake venom as a medicine and cosmetic creams.
5- The Virtues of Snake Venom
The venom belonging to every snake species is made of different molecules; a dense combination of chemical compounds that are unmatched in their poisonous potency anywhere else in organic nature, each engineered with a specific effect on blood, nervous and muscular systems. Fatality aside, scientists have discovered other utilities for these chemicals.
a) Snake Venom as a Medicine
Toxins have been used to process medicine in ancient alchemy throughout history. In the modern era, snake venom is yet a powerful source of innovative cures and New Medicine. While there are countless beneficial derivatives extracted from this reptile’s venom, only seven of these medicines have been approved by the FDA.
Of course, processing healing medicine from a deadly mixture extracted from the venomous glands of a snake is a complex task. Perfecting a medicine, similar to most other drugs, takes years of purification, test runs and enhancing the drawbacks through several practical phases until it can be released for public use. Some of these medications are stopped amid the process for various reasons. Often due to insufficiency of safe-use evidence and other times for a lack of solutions for overcoming adverse effects.
Snake venoms are used in various fields in regards to its medical utility;
- Anti Cancer Snake Venom Extractions: Crotoxin is a chemical substance found in the venom of Rattlesnakes. Through research, this chemical has shown an ability to target and kill the cancer cells, resulting in CB24 cancer treatment.
- Snake Venom for Controlling Blood Pressure: Brazilian pit viper or Yellow Spearheaded Viper produces a venom containing ACE inhibitors. These enzymes decrease the blood pressure of their victim, which have been used in extracting therapeutic blood pressure medicines.
- Snake Venom for Diabetes: Brazilian pit viper’s venom also produces chemicals effective in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
- Snake Venom for Curing Nervous System Disorders: The Black Mamba is one of the planet’s deadliest snakes, which supports the cure of the most incurable disorders; the Neurotoxins in its venom are used in extraction of therapeutic substances for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
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- Snake Venom and Morphine: Mamba Noir produces a venom with analgesic properties similar to morphine. Although the considerable advantage of this substitute is the non addictive nature of Mambalgins in the venom, when compared to the highly addictive opioid family of pain depressants.
- Snake Venom for Neuro-Muscular Disorders: During a research conducted in the 1960s, the cure for the autoimmune-based muscle weakness disorder, formally known as Myasthenia gravis, was examined using snake venom. The extraction from salivary glands of Taiwan's Krait Stripes proved extremely useful in management of this genetic disorder.
- Production of Antivenom: The modern production of antivenom has started from the 1800s, by employing a long and laborious process. It involves a chain of professionals working with snake venom extraction, donor animals and human-grade serum production. The process has barely changed since its initial foundation.
b) Snake Venom in Cosmetics
While deriving cosmetics from snake venom remains an astonishing fact, this poisonous cocktail has become a pharmaceutical staple, particularly in production of anti-aging serums and creams. The high contents of amino acids and rare peptides create a regenerating response in the skin cells.
The idea behind cosmetic use of snake venom started first as a topical agent for anti-inflammatory and painkillers. The skin regeneration results turned the attention of many to its beautifying aspects. In today’s market, this ingredient highlights a beauty element with other topical uses, including the fight against;
- Varicose veins
- Inflammation of muscles and tendons
- Snake venom has been proven to be a very beneficial agent in the treatment of psoriasis and skin infections.
New scientific reports approve of the adoption of snake venom in cosmetic products. An example of these uses is the SYN-AKE; a synthetically produced snake venom by a swiss scientist. It was used as a facial muscle relaxant to diminish the appearance of the wrinkles. While Botox injections result in a complete paralysis of muscles, SYN-AKE still allows muscle movement and natural facial expressions. This product was released in a form of moisturizing cream.
Snake venom products sit on the rather costly side of the cosmetic market, offering a painless and more effective alternative to tradition anti aging procedures. They are also advertised as safe substitutes, especially in contrast with poisonous injections such as botulinum. However, these claims are based on a handful of scientific researches on snake venom benefits as a cosmetic product.
Even Though we may still fear snakes for our hereditary survival genes, snakes and their venom remain an untapped source with countless virtues in medical and pharmaceutical fields and those yet to be discovered.
As testified by the medical snake symbolism throughout the history and modern era, snake venom has been an inseparable part of worldwide cultures. This majestic creature yet continues to fascinate, thrill and benefit us continuously. Although for the correct precautions or to study these reptiles, we still need to know how to identify a snake.
6- A Life-threatening bite or a Sensual Kiss; a Stylish Look at the Snake Bites
By learning about the composition of snake venom, you have earned an expert view of the snake venom function. The information about the origins and causes of gene mutation in snakes through millions of years, have broadened your perspective about these majestic yet perilous creatures, besides new ideas about your own fears of reptiles, your house pets and other animals.
Apart from the reasons behind the harmful aspects of snake venoms, you have gained much useful information about the process of antivenom production. Moreover, the innovative cures and medication derived from various snake venoms. At the next cocktail party, you can be the speech giver on one of the most attention grabbing topics- anti aging cosmetics that provide robust rejuvenation without having any adverse effects.
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