Written by: Kelly Loud, Education Collections Volunteer
Snails are just not what I generally think of when people drop the term “DANGER.” Bears- yes, sharks- obviously, tigers- you got it, but snails? Usually not. But let me tell you what. Snails- sea-dwelling cone snails, at least are actually pretty formidable predators.
Cone snails have a harpoon that is located at the end of a long finger-like proboscis. The harpoon is made of a modified tooth. Cone snails aim the proboscis at their intended target and shoot the harpoon, injecting their prey with a myriad of different toxins called the “nirvana cabal,” paralyzing the target in seconds. Recently a scientific team published an article titled “Specialized insulin is used for chemical warfare by fish-hunting cone snails” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The article detailed how some species of fish-hunting cone snails use insulin in their nirvana cabal. When injected into the snail’s scaly prey, the insulin effectively breaks down the target’s blood sugar, putting the fish into hypoglycemic shock. This means that it slows down the usually rapidly moving fish, making it easier for the snail to catch and eat.
At this point in the blog you may be thinking that the brief post-Jaws ocean hiatus you took as a kid doesn’t sound so terrible. But I, blog readers, am here to give you a silver lining of all silver linings. Just as many people willingly inject the botulism toxin into their willingly inject the botulism toxin into their crows feet, laugh lines, and elevens (slang for the wrinkles in between your eyebrows) when they get Botox, many poisons and toxins actually have tremendous medical potency. Cone snail toxins are no exception. In Jennifer S. Holland’s article “The Bite That Heals” she explains that there have been recent advancements in science that allow for medical professionals to use various aspects of the “nirvana cabal” to treat patients with serious illnesses. Conotoxins, for example, break down the communications from nerve cells, which makes them useful for those battling the severe pain from late stages cancers and preventing the advancement of Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease. Pretty amazing, huh? Snails, the harbingers of medical science…
So, there you have it: the formidable and beneficial cone snail.
Safavi-Hemami ,Helena, Joanna Gajewiak, Santhosh Karanth, Samuel D. Robinson, Beatrix Ueberheide, Adam D. Douglass, Amnon Schlegel, Julita S. Imperial, Maren Watkins, Pradip K. Bandyopadhyay, Mark Yandell, Qing Li, Anthony W. Purcell, Raymond S. Norton, Lars Ellgaard, and Baldomero M. Olivera
2015 “Specialized insulin is used for chemical warfare by fish-hunting cone snails” PNAS 1743-1748; published ahead of print January 20. Electronic document, http://www.pnas.org/content/112/6/1743?tab=author-info
Hlland, Jennifer S. 2013 “The Bite That Heals” National Geographic . February: Vol. 223, Issue 2. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/02/125-venom/holland-text Conus purpurascens (Purple cone) (SPECIES) 2015 UniProt. http://www.uniprot.org/taxonomy/41690