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Scientists find a new way to study venom production

A new study published in the journal PLoS ONE has found an innovative, animal-friendly manner to study venom genes. This technique makes it possible to determine the specific venom production of a variety of animals that have scarcely been studied before.

 “Every venom contains tens to more than hundreds of different venomous substances, also called toxins, which are produced by the venom gland,” explained study co-author Freek Vonk, a professor of Biology at the Free University of Amsterdam (VU) and researcher at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. “After a bite or sting, these can have a toxic effect on various systems, such as the nerve endings or blood circulation.” 

The scientists used a method called transcriptomics, through which patterns of gene expression can be examined. This method is easier, purer, and more specific than previously used techniques, allowing researchers to study the actual venom instead of venom gland tissue. Due to this, animals no longer need to be sacrificed in order to investigate the gene expression of their venom glands.

“Thanks to this technique, we can very precisely see which genes are active at various moments during the venom production,” said Vonk. “This snapshot offers the very first possibility to study how various influences, such as nutrition, season, and age, influence the venom production in a single individual.”

Venom is produced by animals in different ways. While some animals such as snakes or centipedes have venom-producing cells that issue the venom to the storage space in the venom gland in small vesicles, producing a relatively clean venom, other animals, like scorpions, allow their venom gland cells to be cut in small pieces, thus producing a venom that contains many cell remains.

“Those cell remains contain the substances on which we can perform transcriptomics: mapping which genes are activated to produce which proteins,” said study co-author Mátyás Bittenbinder, a doctoral student at Naturalis and the VU.

“The manner of venom production probably explains why the new technique does not work on snakes,” added Arie van der Meijden, a researcher at the University of Porto and inventor of this innovative technique. “Conversely, the technique now makes it possible to study the venom variations in a large number of venomous animals that have scarcely ever, if at all, been studied, such as scorpions, fish, and even the platypus.”

Since the toxins in the venom are important sources for manufacturing new drugs, this study can have a significant impact in medicine. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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