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SCIENCE INKorporated

Fry's tattoos include CT scanned images of Komodo dragon skulls, a stylised snak

Fry's tattoos include CT scanned images of Komodo dragon skulls, a stylised snake and an adrenalin molecule.

By Matt Finch

His body may be adorned by tattoos of snakes, Komodo dragons and an adrenaline molecule, but Bryan Fry is only one of many scientists whose research interests are glorified in ink.

The phone rings for a long time before the call goes through.

“Who is this?”

I introduce myself.

The speaker repeats: “Who is this?” It sounds like he’s outdoors. A gust of wind blots out his voice and we lose the connection.

I wait and call again. “Dr Fry, I’m calling from Australasian Science.”

“I’m sorry, I was taking out the trash when I saw a venomous swamp snake. Of course I had to try and catch it.” The term “scientific pursuit” is a literal – and hazardous – one for Brian Grieg Fry of the University of Queensland.

From mammals like the slow loris to sea urchins, Komodo dragons and, inevitably, snakes, Fry has made it his life’s work to understand the creatures that use one of nature’s most fascinating mechanisms: venom. The American-born biologist has travelled from Antarctica to Pakistan’s Sindh desert as he studies how animals inflict toxic wounds on their victims.

Fry’s passion is so great that he has covered his body with tattoos relating to his work. He has a stylised image of a snake on his back; biohazard symbols on each arm; twin X-ray scans of a Komodo dragon; and an adrenalin molecule on the back of his neck – “a ready recharge for when I’m out in the field chasing animals,” he jokes. The longitude and latitude of Antarctica, tattooed over his heart, commemorate a “scientifically magnificent, emotionally cathartic” trip to the southernmost continent where he milked venomous octopuses and studied the toxins of sea anemones.

Fry’s striking body art is featured in a new book about tattooed scientists by American writer Carl Zimmer, who discovered a world of researchers whose work is indelibly inked onto their bodies when he saw an unexpected tattoo on the arm of a neurobiologist friend at a swimming pool party.

Zimmer asked other tattooed scientists to contact him via his website and was soon inundated with images. From mathematicians to marine biologists, researchers around the world were keen to share their unusual body art. This led to Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed, which collects the most impressive and unusual designs from Zimmer’s search.

Although people have tattooed their bodies for thousands of years, the modern tattoo has a special connection to both Australasian culture and modern scientific research. Joseph Banks, the British botanist who travelled on Captain James Cook’s first voyage of exploration, brought the word “tattoo” into the English language after visiting Polynesia. The first appearance of the word in an English document is found in Banks’ report of August 1769:

I shall now mention their method of Painting their bodies or Tattow as it is calld in their language. This they do by inlaying the colour of Black under their skins in such a manner as to be indelible; every one is markd thus in different parts of his body according may be to his humour or different circumstances of his life.

In New Zealand, Banks subsequently encountered Maori people whose “faces [were] markd with deeply engravd furrows Colourd also black and formd in regular spirals”. No one knows if Banks got a tattoo of his own, but his shipmates brought the practice back from the Pacific to Europe. Sailors wore tattoos as totems against shipwreck and emblems of their passion – and Zimmer found similar motivations among contemporary scientists.

“Scientists have this reputation for being dry and passionless,” he told an audience at the New York Academy of Sciences earlier this year, “but there’s nothing further from the truth. Tattoos are an expression of the passion that drives you to get a PhD.”

Fry’s sense of vocation certainly fits with Zimmer’s take on scientific passion. “Venom is all I’ve ever been interested in,” he explained during our phone call. “At 16 months, I contracted spinal meningitis. My first memory is suffering the pain of this toxic condition. It was a daily reminder of the power of toxins. By the time I was 4 years old, I was fascinated by venomous animals, and told my family I would grow up to study them.”

Obsessed with “creepy crawlies”, the young Fry would research animals in local libraries before going out to hunt them. “Catching my first snake was a matter of trial and error,” he says. “It was a garter snake which bit my forearm and crapped all over the front of my shirt. I was stinky, bloody and happy!”

The tattoos worn by Fry today are more than just a celebration of his childhood passion. His work on the evolution of venom has been at times controversial: the body art based on his research reminds him that there is always a person – and an emotional commitment – behind any scientific theory. “Even the strict scientific definition of venomous animals depends on the arguments and beliefs of individuals,” Fry explains.

An ongoing dispute on the evolution of venom has pitted him against other researchers, including Ken Kardong, professor emeritus at Washington State University. The debate revolves around the question: when do we consider an animal to be venomous?

Venom is a mechanism for delivering poisonous chemicals – toxins – via a wound inflicted on another animal. Some ancestors of today’s venomous snakes had toxic chemicals in their saliva, but were they, strictly speaking, venomous?

For Fry, any chemicals that disrupt one animal’s bodily functions when it is bitten by another animal should be thought of as venom. This includes toxins secreted in the saliva of the ancestors of modern snakes.

But Kardong argues for a stricter definition: that only fast-acting and fatal toxins delivered by a bite should be considered venomous. “Fry is an exceptional molecular biologist,” Kardong told Australasian Science, “and his passion makes him a worthy candidate for discussion. But not all toxic oral secretions are venomous – and this is an important distinction.”

These apparently abstract arguments could have practical impact in emergency rooms and casualty departments around the world as scientists ask whether some snake bites are becoming more venomous and dangerous and, if so, whether this is an example of evolution at work before our eyes?

Hospitals in Southern California have recently seen a spate of unusual bite victims whose dangerous cases may relate to the venom experts’ dispute. “Since 2007–2008 we’ve started to see snake bites that had clinical effects which we weren’t used to seeing so frequently,” says Dr Richard Clark, Director of Medical Toxicology at the University of California, San Diego, in a telephone interview. “We saw victims who would stop breathing, or whose blood pressure would fall, as a result of the bite.”

The bites, commonly from the southern Pacific rattlesnake found in California, led to unexpectedly severe reactions in around 10% of the 60–70 cases seen in the area each year. It’s unclear whether this was due to seasonal fluctuations in the strength of venom or signs of evolutionary changes among local snakes.

For Fry it’s a clear case of evolution in action. “This isn’t some kind of ‘magic’ transformation that makes antivenom treatment ineffective,” he says. “The ridges where the snakes live have served as an island in evolutionary terms. Ridge snakes have specialised in different ways from their desert-floor cousins. A bite from one area’s snake may affect your nerves, another may affect your blood. Evolution and the resulting adaptation has to guide our treatment of the victims.”

However, Clark says that other explanations are possible. “Venom changes daily according to [the snake’s] diet and temperature and other factors. Even venom from the same type of snake, delivered in the same amount under lab conditions, will have different effects when tested on animals.”

If doctors and scientists could understand the cause of these unusual bite reactions and resolve some of the disputes around venom evolution, they would be better able to help the many people bitten by snakes every year.

Fry says that his tattoos, by reminding him of the personal passions behind scientific endeavour, keep him grounded through the academic furore over the evolution of venom. “I see myself as a challenger to the old guard right now, but in the fullness of time I’ll have to rethink my attitude when new thinkers come to challenge me. I hope that wearing my passions on my sleeve lets me do so scientifically, not emotionally.”

Beyond the emergency room, the tattooed scientist’s work also has a practical benefit in the field of drug research.“All poisons can be a medical tool. Venom has saved more lives than it has taken,” Fry explains, giving the example of Captopril. This drug, used to treat high blood pressure and some heart conditions, derives from the venom of South American lance-head vipers.

Fry says this creates a strong business case for conservation. “Venom should be seen as a valuable natural resource. We must conserve all of nature because we can’t predict where the next wonder drug will come from,” he argues. “Exenatide, a drug used to treat diabetes, is a synthetic form of a substance discovered in the saliva of endangered Gila monsters.”

Even over the telephone, extolling the virtues of “conservation through commercialisation” by the drug industry, Fry’s voice communicates the same passion that has driven him to go under the tattooist’s needle time after time. Controversial as he may be, he’s a tireless promoter of the biological research that has consumed his life. In this, the inked and outspoken venom expert is one of the most exciting advocates for science in 21st century Australia.

He ends our phone call on a philosophical thought: “At all levels, scientists must think outside the box. We need thinkers, not tinkerers.” But there’s rising excitement in his voice, and I can hear the wind still blowing over the line.

Fry rings off. I’m pretty sure he’s going back to chase that swamp snake.

Matt Finch is a freelance writer and education consultant.