Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Venoms Don’t Lose Their Bite

By Stephen Luntz

A box of long-lost venom samples has proven to be a treasure-trove with the potential to provide new drugs and improve our understanding of snake evolution.

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Ten years ago A/Prof Bryan Fry was deputy director at the Australian Venom Research Unit. Investigating old boxes tucked away in storage, he found one curated by anti-venom legend Prof Struan Sutherland before somehow being lost to memory.

Inside were vials of venom collected from as long ago as the 1920s and even a sample from the snake that killed venom researcher Kevin Budden in 1950. Budden had caught a taipan by the neck but was unable to bag it. He hitchhiked to town still holding the snake. “He was bitten in the process,” Fry says, “but heroically made sure the snake was transported away for research before he went to the hospital, where he died shortly after”. Budden’s sacrifice led to the development of anti-venom against taipans.

Fry and colleagues have now tested the samples to see whether they have been degraded with time. They have announced in Proteomics that most were intact. This was something of a surprise. “Like any protein, venoms are inherently unstable, and some were dried using out-of-date techniques like desiccation beads that dry slower and not always completely,” he says. The survival of the samples may be related to their high salt content, making them unfavourable for bacterial growth.

“On a scale of 1–10 of coolness, this is an 11. It was such an honour to work with these samples due to their immense historical significance...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.