Evolution of cobras' flesh-eating venom now decoded!

These findings could also help future researches in treatments for cancer.

By Zee Media Bureau | Updated: Mar 15, 2017, 17:59 PM IST
Evolution of cobras' flesh-eating venom now decoded!

 New Delhi: Snake bites have been known to be poisonous to the degree of fatality since time immemorial.

Of course, non-poisonous snakes do exist, but the long-instilled fear of these serpents, combined with their unforgiving-when-provoked nature, makes us wary of them anyway.

One of the most feared snakes are Cobras, whose venom has lethal flesh-eating abilities. But how did they develop it?

Scientists have been trying to solve that mystery for a long time and they finally have their answer!

As per the researchers, cobras developed their potent flesh-destroying venom along with the ornately-marked broad hoods to warn off potential predators.

The killer snakes who are native to Africa and Asia, cause crippling social and economic burdens through the number of survivors who need amputations due to their flesh-eating venom.

"While we knew the results of their venom, how the cobra's unique defensive venom evolved remained a mystery until now," said Bryan Fry, associate professor at University of Queensland in Australia.

"Our study discovered the evolutionary factors shaping not only cobra venom, but also the ornate markings on their hoods, and the extremely bright warning colourings present in some species," said Fry.

29 cobra species and related snakes were investogated by the team of researchers, to come to the conclusion that the flesh-destroying venom first evolved alongside the broad hoods that make cobras so distinctive.

Further increases in the potency of toxins occurred parallel to their warning strategies such as hood markings, body banding, red colouring and spitting, Fry said.

"Their spectacular hoods and eye-catching patterns evolved to warn off potential predators because unlike other snakes, which use their venom purely for predation, cobras also use it in defence," he said.

"For the longest time it was thought that only spitting cobras had these defensive toxins in high amounts in their venoms, however we've shown that they are widespread in cobras," Fry added.

"These results show the fundamental importance of studying basic evolution and how it relates to human health," he said.

"Globally, snakebite is the most neglected of all tropical diseases and antivenom manufacturers are leaving the market in favour of products that are cheaper to produce and have a bigger market," Fry said.

"Antivenom is expensive to make, has a short shelf life and a small market located in developing countries," he said.

"Therefore, we need to do further research to see how well those remaining antivenoms neutralise not only the toxins that kill a person, but also those that would cause a severe injury," he added.

Fry also stated that these findings could also help future researches in treatments for cancer.

"Any kind of compound that selectively kills cells could be a good thing," he said.

"These chemicals may lead to new cancer treatments if we can find ones that are more potent to cancer cells than normal healthy cells," he added.

"Cobras are a rich resource of novel compounds in this way so there may ultimately be a silver lining to this very dark cloud," he said.

The study was published in the journal Toxins.

(With PTI inputs)