Venomics is the scientific analysis of venom, and incorporates a number of fields such as molecular biology, molecular evolution, pharmacology and neurobiology. Animal venoms are a complex mixture of substances, including proteins, peptides (small chains of amino acids), and other small molecules. Venoms have evolved independently of one another in the animal kingdom around two dozen times, in animals ranging from snakes, to spiders, to Tom Hardy.
What makes them so interesting to scientists is how these substances have evolved to interact in various and often biologically specific ways. Venom is used for either predation or defence, and each animal’s venom will act accordingly. For example, a Boomslang Snake’s venom is a hemotoxin which disables blood coagulation and causes the victim to die of internal bleeding over a course of days; Stan Lee’s Venom is an alien symbiote bound onto the body of Eddie Brock as a host, and has an enduring hatred for Spider-Man.
As brutal as venoms can be, they pose a significant and exciting area of science to be explored. The proteins in venoms have evolved to be so brutally efficient at what they do, and the idea is that this could be used to make super efficient drugs, and by extension understand better how drugs themselves work. Animal venoms are already pre-optimised, receptor targeted, pharmacologically active – meaning we already know they work on various areas of the body with specifically evolved results. Byetta, for example, is one of a new wave of drugs designed to lower levels of glucose in the blood in type 2 diabetes. The key component in Byetta is derived from the venom of the Gila Monster – a massive lizard species native to Northern Mexico and Southern USA. Around 15% of the world’s animals produce venom of some kind, so we have only begun to scratch the surface of what this field might contribute to medicine. Or biological super-weapons, because that’s the world we really live in.