This snake is a freak. It boasts the largest venom glands in the world. It eats king cobras for breakfast. And it has a scorpion’s sting. But that’s not what has scientists excited.
“We have found the wildest snake toxin ever, from the venom of the most outrageous snakes,” Bryan Fry said. “It does something no other snake has ever done.”
The super-powerful venom of the long-glanded blue coral snake could inspire new pain treatments for humans. Photo: Tom Charlton
The Queensland University venomologist is talking about the aptly named long-glanded blue coral snake of south-east Asia – and its unusual venom which takes hold with lightning efficiency.
A reptile with electric blue stripes and neon-red head and tail, it grows up to two metres long. Its venom glands extend to a good 60 centimetres – about one-quarter of its body length.
“On the scale of weird, this one goes to 11,” Dr Fry said. “It’s a freaky snake.”
Described as “the killer of killers” due to its taste for young king cobras, this snake is unique among snakes because, like scorpions, its venom causes its prey to spasm.
A young king cobra is no match for the long-glanded blue coral snake.
Exactly how it does this has been discovered for the first time. The results, published in the journal Toxins, could lead to improved pain management for humans.
“This venom hits a particular type of sodium channel that is important for the treatment of pain in humans,” Dr Fry said.
Dr Bryan Fry holds a king cobra. Young king cobras are often prey to the blue coral snake
With colleagues from Australia, China, Singapore and the US, Dr Fry identified six unusual peptides in the venom of the blue coral snake that can switch on all of its prey’s nerves at once. This immediately immobilises its victim.
So what does a paralysis-inducing venom have to do with improving the treatment and management of pain in humans?
Dr Fry said the research showed that the venom used receptors which were critical to pain in humans. Learning about how these worked could enable improved pain treatment and management.
“It’s also the first vertebrate to do this via sodium channels,” Dr Fry said. “So from a drug development perspective, this is interesting as this animal is evolutionarily-speaking closer to us than a scorpion. Which means it might be more amenable to us.”
While the length of the long-glanded blue coral snake’s venom glands was known, the way the venom worked hadn’t been studied. And given there are related species, there could be as many as 200 variations of the peptides in total.
“It’s a great example of why studying the really weird animals is a great path for biodiscovery and you can’t get any weirder than this snake with the longest venom glands in the world,” Dr Fry said.
“You can’t predict where the next wonder drug came from so you need to protect what you have.”