A look at some ASBMB members whose research focuses on biological toxins, which can be used as models for mammalian systems, as diagnostic tools in the lab or even as potential therapeutic agents. (Titled "Potent science" in print version.)
Whether employed for attack, defense or a little bit of both, biological toxins have evolved throughout the plant, animal and microbial kingdoms. These deadly compounds have been the subject of scientific inquiry for centuries and remain so to this day. In particular, venoms produced by numerous animal species are a subject of great interest. These biological cocktails contain proteins and peptides with exceptionally enhanced activity designed to do a specific job and do it well. Given such potent biochemistry, it certainly makes sense that many American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology members have taken an interest in venom proteins, whether as models for mammalian systems, as diagnostic tools in the lab or even as potential therapeutic agents. Included below are just a handful of our society’s members who brave these venomous waters in their research.
Professor and Assistant Dean of Research Support of Microbiology
University of Virginia Medical School, Charlottesville
Back in the day, working in Jay Fox’s lab was quite an adventure. “We used to house live venomous snakes in our lab, and that typically kept my graduate students on edge,” he says.
These days, most of the venom peptides he needs easily can be synthesized or purchased, so current students don’t need to worry about any slithery companions. However, Fox believes that doesn’t make his research into the molecular biology and proteomics of snake venom any less exciting.
Fox got his first sip of the venom cocktail during his graduate studies with fellow ASBMB member Anthony Tu at Colorado State University, where he used approaches like Raman spectroscopy to identify the toxins present in various snake venoms.
He continued his work in the field of toxinology when he set up his own lab and managed to identify some unusual zinc proteases among the peptides of several crotalid (rattlesnakes and their relatives) venoms. These proteases, termed reprolysins, could break down collagen and other extracellular matrix components and likely are responsible for the hemorrhaging associated with snakebites.
Of course, Fox did realize that his snake venom studies would likely require some applicability for long-term success. “Snakebites are really quite rare, so they’re not perceived as a significant health problem that requires tremendous resources,” he says.