Beware the blenny’s bite: scientists uncover the toxins in fang blenny venom

By Christie Wilcox | March 30, 2017 11:00 am
Meiacanthus atrodorsalis—a prettly little fish with a venomous bite. Photo by Klaus Stiefel / Flickr

Meiacanthus atrodorsalis—a pretty little fish with a venomous bite. Photo by Klaus Stiefel via Flickr

“Did you tell her the one about George Losey and the blenny?” Rich Pyle asked with a knowing smirk. Pyle and I were sitting in the living room of legendary ichthyologist Jack Randall for a piece I was writing about him for Hakai Magazine. “It’s a good venom story,” Pyle continued, grinning.

Randall’s eyes lit up with mischievious joy as he launched into the tale. He and George Losey were invited to Guam to bear witness to a massive crown of thorns sea star invasion, he explained (“It was one overlapping another as far as you could see,” he recalled; “They decimated the corals of the whole northern coast”). While he and Losey were diving, Randall saw a small blenny—one of a group of blennies that he knew Losey had taken an interest in. Since he had a three-pronged sling-style spear on him, Randall caught the fish, which remained wriggling on the end of his spear tip. He asked Losey if he wanted it to examine later, and Losey did, but he didn’t have any containers to put it in. So, Losey did what seemed like the obvious thing: he tucked the creature into his swim trunks. “Well, it has a venomous bite…” Randall said laughing—a fact which was unknown at the time. “It bit him right here, on the belly,” Randall gestured, “and he let out a yelp!” That was how George Losey first discovered the venomous nature of fang blennies in the genus Meiacanthus, Randall explained—by making the mistake of putting one in his shorts.
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Is a new ‘nanodote’ the next big thing in snakebite treatment? Not yet.

By Christie Wilcox | March 13, 2017 8:00 am
UCI chemistry professor Ken Shea (right) and doctoral student Jeffrey O’Brien have developed a potential new broad-spectrum snake venom antidote. Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

UCI chemistry professor Ken Shea (right) and doctoral student Jeffrey O’Brien (left) have developed a potential new broad-spectrum snake venom antidote. Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

Living in countries like the U.S., Australia, and the U.K., it can be all too easy to forget that snakebites are a serious and neglected global medical problem. It’s estimated that upwards of 4.5 million people are envenomated by snakes every year; about half of them suffer serious injuries including loss of limbs, and more than 100,000 die from such bites.

Much of this morbidity and mortality could be prevented if faster, easier access to the therapeutics that target and inactivate snake venom toxins could be established. But effective antivenoms are difficult to produce, expensive, and usually require storage and handling measures such as refrigeration that simply aren’t possible in the rural, remote areas where venomous snakes take their toll. Seeking to solve many of the issues, a new wave of researchers have begun the search for alternatives, hoping to find stable, cheap, and effective broad-spectrum antidotes to snake venom toxins. One such group at the University of California Irvine recently announced a promising new candidate: a nanogel that can neutralize one of the most dangerous families of protein toxins found in snake venoms.

In a press release published last week, the scientific team—led by chemistry professor Ken Shea—drew attention to their most recent paper unveiling the new possible therapeutic, which was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in December with Shea’s Ph.D. student, Jeffrey O’Brien, as lead author. The team dubbed the polymer nanogel material, which consists of readily available acrylamide derivates, a “nanodote.” Read More

What’s in a name? Venoms vs. Poisons | Toxinology 101

By Christie Wilcox | February 16, 2017 8:00 am

Scientists refer to the study of biological toxins as toxinology (not to be confused with toxicology, with a C—as I explain below). From bacterial toxins like anthrax to the deadliest snake venoms, toxinology examines the chemical warfare between animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. This is the first in a new series I call Toxinology 101, where I explain and explore the fundamentals of toxin science to reveal the unusual, often unfamiliar, and unnerving world created by our planet’s most notorious biochemists.

Photo via Shutterstock

Photo via Shutterstock

“Point blank,” my friend, a commander in the US Navy, said firmly, when I asked what misused word or phrase really gets under his skin. “Definitely point blank.”

I asked why, and as he explained, I realized I’d been using the phrase wrong, too. To people familiar with firearms, hearing someone call an up-close gun shot “point blank” is like dragging nails on a chalkboard because that’s not what it means at all. Point blank (which may come from the French phrase pointé à blanc, referring to an arrow being aimed at a white spot at the center of a target) has nothing to do with close proximity to the shooter. Rather, point blank range is the distance at which a weapon aimed at a target succeeds in hitting it—where point of aim (e.g. the middle of the crosshairs) is the same as point of impact.

Bullets don’t travel in a straight line; from the moment they leave the gun, they are pulled by gravity. The further away your target is, the more you have to adjust for the arc of the bullet with the angle of the barrel of the gun. But the aiming line of sight is a straight line; point blank is where the bullet’s path and the line of sight cross. Adjustable sights allow you to aim your shot for a desired distance; thus, for long-range rifles, “point blank” could be set to 100, 200, or even 300+ yards away. Meanwhile, many handguns have fixed sights, so their point blank range is limited to whatever distance the gun is is zeroed to. Point blank range for such guns can be somewhat close—within fifty feet—but even that is much further than what most people think of as “point blank.” In fact, if a gun is literally pressed against the victim, then the point in the middle of the sights (which are usually on top of the barrel) isn’t where the bullet ends up—it’s off by the width of the barrel at least—so that isn’t point blank range. Different munitions have different maximum point blank ranges, depending on the weapon’s inherent ballistic properties, the aiming device used, and the type of bullet used.

A quick diagram showing how “point blank” can be somewhat close or hundreds of yards away.

It’s no wonder, then, that every time my friend hears someone was shot “point blank” (meaning gun to the head, or within a few feet), he gets a little prickly. Of course, there are words and phrases like “point blank” for every profession. Doesn’t matter if you’re an accountant, mechanic, or CEO, your job requires an understanding of the lingo of your field, and it can be frustrating when words with specific, important meanings are flung about incorrectly by everyone else.

For me, the ‘nails on chalkboard’ feeling comes whenever I hear people talk about their everday exposure to “toxins” or “poisonous” snakes. Though they’re often used interchangeably, the words toxin, venom, and poison (and their corresponding adjectives toxic, venomous, and poisonous) have very distinct meanings to toxinologists. So, it’s only fitting to kick off my Toxinology 101 series by explaining the differences between them and when it’s appropriate to use each of these terms. Read More

Bite from the past: new study on boomslang venom provides insights into the death of renowned herpetologist Karl Schmidt

By Christie Wilcox | January 30, 2017 8:00 am
The deadly boomslang, the snake fingered in the death of Dr. Karl Schmidt. Photo by William Warby

The deadly boomslang, the snake fingered in the death of Dr. Karl Schmidt. Photo by William Warby

The actual bite happened in less than a second. Dr. Karl Schmidt, an American herpetologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, had been sent a live snake to identify by his colleague, Richard Marlin Perkins (then the director of the Lincoln Park Zoo). The animal appeared to be a boomslang (Dispholidus typhus), a kind of rear-fanged African snake, but there was something a bit odd about its scales, so Schmidt and his colleagues discussed the matter as they examined the serpent. It didn’t take long for the agitated animal to decide it had had enough manhandling. “I took it from Dr. Inger without thinking of any precaution, and it promptly bit me on the fleshy lateral aspect of the first joint of the left thumb,” Schmidt wrote in his diary on September 25th, 1957. “The mouth was widely opened and the bite was made with the rear fangs only, only the right fang entering to its full length of about 3 mm.” A day later, he would be dead. Read More

Science Sushi: 2016 in Review

By Christie Wilcox | December 31, 2016 11:59 pm


It’s that time of the year again where I look back and see what has happened over the past 365 days in the life of this blog. So far in 2016…

…I have posted 26 posts

…that received over five hundred ten thousand views

…from 225 countries/territories

…with 1129 comments

My most viewed post of the year (#5 site-wide!) was my personal favorite: Expedition Ecstasy: Sniffing Out The Truth About Hawai‘i’s Orgasm-Inducing Mushroom (does it work? There’s one way to find out…). The closest runner up was my explainer about how GMOs have nothing to do with Zika (#11 site-wide, which also, perhaps unsurprisingly, generated the most comments of any of my posts!). Y’all loved anything about snakes, from video of a man letting deadly snakes bite him to the over-acted fake death of a hognose (last year’s description of death by boomslang also drew eyeballs). My exposé of the Discovery show Venom Hunters also made it into the top ten, as did stories about the future of GMOs, how mosquitoes feed, why cownose rays aren’t destroying fisheries, and how Neil deGrasse Tyson needs a primer on bat biology.

My words also reached beyond the boundaries of this blog to the far corners of the internet. Some of the best include how climate change impacts marine diseases for The Scientist, a newfound appreciation of salps for Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, and why we associate tentacles with aliens for Quartz. However, my favorite piece of the year was my profile of Jack Randall, ichthyologist extraordinaire, for Hakai Magazine. 

Venomous by Christie Wilcox

I also had a big year beyond the interwebs. I had a number of articles published in print-only magazines, including a great piece on the poisonous pitohui bird for Muse and  anotherall about my current work as a venom scientist in this month’s Hana Hou, the magazine for Hawaiian Airlines. In March, my first foray into editing — Science Blogging: The Essential Guide — hit shelves. Then in August, my first book, Venomous, followed suit. The reviews of both have been tremendously positive, and I couldn’t be happier with the way both books have been received. Venomous even obtained coveted slots on Amazon’s Best Books of 2016: Science and Smithsonian’s Best Books About Science of 2016.

2016 doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in most circles. From political upheaval to beloved celebrity deaths, many are happy to see the year end. I am more conflicted—while in those ways, this year has been rough, it’s been one of personal and professional joy and success for me. I’ll always remember 2016 as the year I became engaged to the man of my dreams, the year I became a published author, and the year I conceived my first child. It’s hard for me to speak ill of any year that had all those in it.

Thank you to all of you who read this blog: let’s keep this bio-nerdy party going all through 2017!

Fireworks image (c) Mark Wooding, from Wikipedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Have yourself a toxic berry Christmas

By Christie Wilcox | December 24, 2016 9:19 pm

It’s evening on Christmas Eve, and it’s cold. The early sunset was hours ago, and the insulating clouds have vanished, leaving every surface frozen and glittering like the inside of a geode wherever the light from the street lamps touch. A couple braces as they leave their car and step out into the winter air, their ears filled with the sound of the snow creaking and crunching beneath each fall of their boots, each breath precipitating into thin, gray tendrils that slide past their chilled cheeks. They reach the door of their destination; a home glowing and warm, with muffled laughter and the clatter of silverware spilling out into the dry, stratospheric cold of the street. One of them places a round of knocks below a voluminous wreath of holly, its scarlet berries already wearing a film of frost. The door opens abruptly, and after a series of joyous embraces of ugly-sweatered chests, the couple presents their gift of wine and pie. The magnetic pull of heat, smiles, and carbohydrates draws them inside for the night. As they approach the nexus of the living room, they slowly push through a cavalcade of family members, faces flush with inebriation and the radiative heat of a wood-fired stove. One of them finally reaches a table, liberally adorned with sweets and beverages. They pour two mugs of eggnog, taking care to not catch fire on the centerpiece, a gloriously over-done amalgamation of poinsettias, Christmas roses, and candles. The couple rejoins away from the social huddle of guffaws and crosstalk. They take a swig of their viscous treat, and one of them notes the mistletoe pinned on the beam above them. With a wink and smile, they participate in an age-old tradition, and their lips meet.

Not once do they stop to ponder the noxious notoriety of every plant they’ve come across. From the holly on the door to the mistletoe above their heads, they are surrounded by species with toxic reputations. How did these potential poisons come to be symbolic of a holiday celebrating life and good health? Well, that’s a good story… Read More

Meet The Trumpapillar: The Venomous Caterpillar That Perfectly Mimics The Donald’s Hair

By Christie Wilcox | October 6, 2016 12:45 am

Many have wondered about exact nature of Donald Trump’s hair. Is it the world’s worst toupee? A poorly-executed elaborate comb-over? A weird, incredibly expensive weave? The world may never know. But I prefer to think it’s inspired by nature—not another human’s lovely locks, of course, but those of this animal, which some have taken to calling the Donald Trump Caterpillar or simply the Trumpapillar:

Meet the Trumpapillar. Photo Credit: Jeff Cremer

Meet the Trumpapillar. Photo Credit: Jeff Cremer

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President Obama talks climate change and environmental stewardship – LIVE BLOG

By Christie Wilcox | August 31, 2016 10:57 pm

LIVE coverage of President Obama’s address to the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders

5:50 PM: Aloha Discover readers! I’m here in the press pool at the University of Hawaii’s East West Center, ready to hear President Obama remark on the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Stay tuned for live coverage of the event!


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Uncategorized

Obama Goes Big: Expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument Makes It The World’s Largest Marine Protected Area

By Christie Wilcox | August 25, 2016 11:43 pm


Photo by Mark Sullivan

Photo by Mark Sullivan

Hawaiʻi is now home to the largest marine protected area on the planet. Again.

Today, White House officials announced that President is acting upon the proposed expansion to the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The expansion has been a hot button issue in the islands since its proposal in January. As Governor David Ige noted, it has been the source of “tremendous” debate, especially due to the exclusion of fishing from the expanded waters. The fishing industry fought hard against the proposal, leveraging TV ads, social media, town hall meetings and in-person testimony in Washington and Honolulu to prevent the expansion. But the pro-expansion movement has been resilient. Bumper stickers, signs, bookmarks and t-shirts with the hashtags “#ExpandPNMN” and “#GoBigObama” have been everywhere on Oʻahu. A flurry of town hall meetings, educational sessions, news conferences and media interviews rallied support. Led by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy program, the pro-expansion movement garnered more than 1,409,000 letters and signatures of support, including more than 1500 coral reef scientists that voiced their support during the International Coral Reef Symposium in Honolulu in June. “This decision is scientifically supported and provides substantial hope of leaving a legacy of ocean resources and benefits for future generations,” the scientists’ letter stated.

Ultimately, the President agreed. He will be visiting the islands next week to address leaders from the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders and the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, select, Technology, Top Posts

New Video Highlights Venomous Drugs

By Christie Wilcox | July 31, 2016 8:20 pm

In the final chapter of Venomous, I explain how the deadliest animals on the planet may hold the power to save lives. Though it might seem counterintuitive, toxins aren’t really that different from cures—both specifically target some pathway in the body that is going wrong.

The therapeutic use of venoms traces back centuries to some of our oldest civilizations. That medical legacy is still with us, as the serpent wound around a staff in the symbol of the medical profession.

You can read an edited excerpt from that chapter of my book in  The Wall Street Journal. But just this week, National Geographic came out with a nice little video on the topic, explaining the basics in less than two minutes:

If you want to know more about the world’s most notorious animals and how their chemical cocktails affect us, be sure to pre-order your copy of Venomous today!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, More Science
MORE ABOUT: Medicine, Venom, Venomous

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