All posts by timothy01pd2014

Analgesic Properties of …. Snail Venom?

I know what you’re probably thinking; snails have venom? This was exactly what I had thought when I came across a post on the popular social media website, Reddit. I was intrigued because I didn’t even know that snails have venoms and that they could even be used as painkillers. Turns out, the post wasn’t referring to the typical snails you find in a garden, but instead, the cone snails that are typically found in warm and tropical seas and oceans. Interested by the topic, I decided to investigate more on how exactly the snail venom can act as an analgesic, and its possible significance in the medical field.
Analgesics are commonly known as painkillers, and are divided into two types, mild and strong. Mild analgesics, such as aspirin and paracetamol, are used to treat the typical headaches, toothaches, or sore throats by, “preventing the stimulation of nerve endings at the site of pain and by inhibiting the release of prostaglandins, the chemical responsible for the widening of blood vessels near the site of the injury, from the site of injury to provide relief to inflammation, fever and pain” (Brown, Ford, 2008). For more severe pains, strong analgesics bind to opioid receptors in the brain to alter the perception of pain by blocking the transmission of pain signals between brain cells (Brown, Ford, 2008). Today, many cancer patients, diabetic patients, and other victims of chronic pain are treated with strong analgesics like morphine and heroine. The problem is that these opioids are highly addictive and repeated usage can lead to tolerance, which a reduced response to the drug. Scientists have discovered that the venom found in cone snails have analgesic properties that are 10000 times more powerful than morphine, and the best part about the venom is that it is not addictive. (National Geographic, n.d.) Since cone snail venom is clearly a better analgesic than opioids, I questioned why isn’t it replacing morphine and heroine as the common analgesics to treat victims with chronic pain?
deadly cone

Figure 1: Image of a Marble Cone Snail (National Geographic, (n.d.))

Although they are only about four to six inches long, these carnivorous mollusks they have venoms poisonous enough to kill 15 adult human beings (Compassionate Healthcare Network, 2004). To do this, the cone snails have teeth that are similar to hypodermic needles that inject venom into their preys. The venom instantly paralyzes the victims by interfering with the communications of the nervous systems. In a typical nervous system, the neurons transmit chemical signals to another neuron through ion channels. The chemical signals are repeatedly transmitted from neuron to neuron until it reaches a muscle cell and tells it to contract. The venom of cone snails contain hundreds of thousands of short polypeptide proteins that blocks specific ion channels to prevent neurons from transmitting chemical signals, inhibiting muscle movement, leading to paralysis (Chadwick, 2013)(Discovery News, 2013).
So how can something so deadly be beneficial to humans? For many years, scientists have studied several hundreds of the short polypeptide proteins, called conotoxins, before the isolating analgesic conotoxin agent and creating the synthetic version named Ziconotide, or often known by the name Prialt. Unlike other analgesics, Ziconotide inhibits pain in a different way. People feel pain because electrical signals are carried across a synapse from the pain fibers to the nerve cells in the spinal cord that signals the brain. In order for the electrical signals to cross the synapses, electrical signals has to be converted into a chemical signal with the help of calcium. Ziconotide blocks the calcium gateways in the nerve fibers so that the chemical signals cannot cross the synapse to reach the nerve cells in the spinal cord. As a result, the brain does not receive the signal and therefore, one does not perceive pain (Compassionate Healthcare Network, 2004).
Although Ziconotide is 10000 times more powerful than morphine and is non-addictive, it is not commonly use to treat patients with chronic pain. This is because like any other drug, Ziconotide comes with many side effects such as abnormal vision, amnesia, vertigo, anxiety and possibly more undiscovered side effects. Furthermore, ziconotide cannot be administered orally because the body will break down the swallowed ziconotide before it can reach the receptors they need to reach. Therefore, zinconotide is currently administered with a direct injection into the spinal cord, a costly and invasive method of drug delivery.

Figure 2: Structure of Ziconotide (ChemBlink, (n.d.))

The discovery of Ziconotide has many implications in the medical field. Firstly, future research can be synthesized or modified Ziconotide to withstand the digestive processes of the body so that zinconotide can be taken more conveniently and without economic strain. In fact, scientists have already engineered a circular shaped synthetic Ziconotide conotoxin that is more stable to be administered orally (Discovery News, 2013). Ziconotide that can be administered orally will be more accessible to patients with chronic pain that have developed tolerance to morphine and heroine and need stronger analgesics to suppress the pain. Secondly, the discovery of Ziconotide suggest a bigger picture that many medical issues that people face today could possibly be cured by something in nature. There are so many microorganisms, animals and plants on Earth that have not yet been discovered. Perhaps, the secret to the cures of cancer and other illnesses lie in the Amazon jungle or at the bottom of the Mirana Trench.

Brown, C., Ford, M. (2008). Higher Level Chemistry Developed Specifically for
the IB Diploma. England: Pearson Education Limited.

Chadwick, A. (2013). Venom. The Cone Snail. Retrieved September 5, 2013, from

Compassionate Healthcare Network. (2004). Cone Snail Venom Attacking Pain.
Compassionate Healthcare Network. Retrieved September 5, 2013 from

Discovery News. (2013, February 11). Snail Venom Inspires Powerful Pain
Reliever. Discovery News. Retrieved September 5, 2013, from

National Geographic. (n.d.). Geographic Cone Snail. National Geographic.
Retrieved September 5, 2013, from

Marble Cone Snail [Web Graphic]. (n.d.) Retrieved September 5, 2013 from

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Conus. Wikipedia. Retrieved September 5, 2013 from

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Zinconotide. Wikipedia. Retrieved September 5, 2013 from

Ziconotide Acetate [Web Graphic]. (n.d.). Retrieved September 5, 2013 from

It’s Raining … Bacteria?

A few days ago, I was browsing the Internet when I came across an article stating that several common species of bacteria were discovered in hailstones that fell from near by storm clouds in the atmosphere. This is fascinating for me because it counters my previous assumption that most bacteria are land bound, and those that exist in the atmosphere, existed at low altitudes. I’ve always assumed that the higher the altitude, the more extreme the environment it is for bacteria to survive.

The article stated that a group of researchers in Denmark analyzed hailstones from 2009 and found that it contained, “several species of bacteria that tended to reside on plants, as well as thousands of organic compounds normally found in soil.” (Ghose, 2013) The discovery of microorganism life in clouds is revolutionary because it use to be difficult to study since rain was easily contaminated when it falls from the sky. Hail, however, freezes the microorganisms on the inside, making it easy to study just by sterilizing the outer, contaminated layers. (Rumaithi, 2013). In fact, the hailstones not only contained several species of bacteria typically found in plants and soil, but also thousands of organic, carbon compounds, the same number compounds found in a typical river. (Ghose, 2013). The researchers explained that some of the bacteria are able to act as bases for ice crystals to attach to in the storm clouds. When enough ice crystals have attached to the bacteria, they will fall as either rain or snow, depending on the temperature. (Ghose, 2013) In addition, researchers also found that the bacteria are able to produce a pinkish pigment that will allow the bacteria to adapt to the high energy and high frequency of the ultraviolet (UV) rays in the atmosphere (Ghose, 2013). In fact, the Bactillus Subtilis, a common strand of bacteria commonly found in soil, possess, dark-red pigments, which are 10 times more resistant to UV rays. (Moeller, R., Horneck , G., Facius, R., Stackebrandt, E., 2005)(Wikipedia, n.d.) The pigment protects the bacteria from UV ray by preventing a dangerous reaction between two molecules of thymine, an important base in the structure of DNA. (Rammelsberg, 1998)

Picture 1: A picture of hailstones.

To understand how bacteria can be found in the storm clouds, it must first be understood how the storm clouds are formed. The storm clouds, known as cumulonimbus clouds, have temperatures below 0˚C and are known for “producing lightning and other dangerous severe weather, such as gusts and hail”, (Wikipedia, n.d.) When the cumulonimbus clouds are formed, the hotter air with the lower density, since the molecules will be more spread out, will be pushed (by density laws) upwards by the denser, colder air wedging underneath, creating an upward force (Ophardt, 2003). Researchers theorized that the bacteria from nearby ecosystems would be swept into the cumulonimbus clouds by the updraft force, where it would be attached by ice. (Ghose, 2013)

Picture 2: A picture of a cumulonimbus cloud

The discovery of microorganisms in the Earth’s atmosphere can open multiple possibilities and theories. For example, researchers suggest that this discovery can create the theory that, “ bacteria could influence weather patterns. They may be growing in clouds, increasing in number and then not only modifying the chemistry in the clouds but also in the atmosphere indirectly.” (Ghose, 2013). I believe that this means that if bacteria were found to be responsible for weather pattern, the weather can be predetermined and manipulated by changing the growth of bacteria in the atmosphere. Secondly, the discovery of bacteria in the cumulonimbus clouds shows that bacteria can survive in extreme cold temperatures. It raises a question for myself about how effective is cold temperature at preventing the growth of bacteria. It shows that keeping the bacteria in freezing temperatures may not be the most effective way the inhibiting bacterial growth. Clearly, there is still so much about bacteria and their roles on our everyday life that we do not know about.

Assorted Hail Stones. [Photography]. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest.

Cumulonimbus Storm Cloud Seen From Below. [Photography]. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest.

Ghose, T. (2013, January 23). Storm Clouds Crawling With Bacteria. Live Science.
Retrieved January 23rd, 2013, from

Moeller, R., Horneck , G., Facius, R., Stackebrandt, E. (2005, January 1). Role of Pigmentation in Protecting Bacillus sp. Endospores Against Environmental UV Radiation. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. Retrieved January 25, 2013, from

Ophardt, C. E. (2003) Density Applications with Gases. Virtual Chebook: Elmhurst College. Retrieved January 26, 2013, from

Rammelsberg, A. (1998, August 17). How Does Ultraviolet Light Kill Cells?. Scientific
. Retrieved January 25, 2013, from

Rumaithi, S. A. (2013, January 25), Microbial Life Survives in Storm Clouds. Top News. Retrieved January 25, 2013 from

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Bactillus Subtilis. Wikipedia. Retrieved January 25, 2013, from

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Cumulonibus Cloud. Wikipedia. Retrieved January 25, 2013, from