The ARVRU has a strong record of undertaking basic biological research relating to the venom system of snakes and, on occasion, other venomous animals. These studies reflect our interest in understanding (i) the processes that generate variation in the toxin components found in the venom of different snakes, (ii) how snakes protect themselves from the toxicity of their own venom and (iii) how the snake venom system has evolved. This research has been published extensively in the scientific literature.
Venom composition and variation
A mainstay of our basic research involves characterising the toxic proteins found in the venom and the toxin-encoding genes found in the venom glands of medically-important venomous snakes. These characterisation studies provide us with essential information required to analyse how the venom composition of snakes varies from species to species and, in some cases, within a species. This is important because variation in venom composition can render specific snakebite therapies, known as antivenom, ineffective. This data also allows us to reconstruct how snake venoms and their toxins have evolved over time, which provides us with important insights into the likely pathologies caused by envenoming of different snake species.
We were heavily involved in the recent publication of the first snake genome sequences as members of the king cobra and Burmese python genome projects. These genome sequences provided us with the first complete genetic codes of any snakes, permitting us, and our collaborators, to investigate how a number of snake-specific adaptations, such as the loss of limbs, extreme digestion and venom, have arisen. Our main focus was investigating the evolution of the snake venom system and we demonstrated that venomous snakes have complex venoms as a result of a long history of duplicating toxin genes. We are currently involved in a number of other ongoing snake genome projects, including co-leading the Malayan pit viper genome project.