Student could spark snakebite rethink.
A WELSH university student could spark a revolution in the treatment of snakebites thanks to his pioneering research.
Axel Barlow, a first-year PhD student at Bangor University, has produced a research paper on saw-scaled vipers which shows that snakes which have evolved to feed on scorpions have also evolved venom which is more lethal to scorpions, demonstrating that changes in diet have been an important factor in snake venom evolution.
The significance of this discovery lies in the medical treatment of snakebites and his findings have now been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B this month.
Variation in venom composition between different species or populations of snakes can complicate anti-venom treatment. Understanding the evolutionary processes that produce venom variation can therefore lead to better anti-venom design and effectiveness. This is particularly relevant in the case of saw-scaled vipers, which are probably responsible for the majority of snakebite deaths in Africa.
However, many West African hospitals still rely on imported anti-venom from Asia, where the saw-scaled vipers have very different venom composition, and the failure of this imported anti-venom has led to many unnecessary deaths.
"This study provides one of the most convincing pieces of evidence to date for the role of natural selection for diet in shaping snake venom composition, a key question in our understanding of venom evolution in snakes," said Dr
Wolfgang Wster, an expert in snakes and snake venoms and a lecturer at Bangor University's School of Biological Sciences.
Axel compiled much of the work for his undergraduate final year project, which was part of a wider project on venom evolution funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
"Saw-scaled vipers provide a good model to study venom variation as different species have extremely different diets," he said. "This allows us to investigate the effects of evolutionary changes in diet within a single group of related snake species." Now 28, Axel studied for his first degree in zoology at Bangor, followed by an MSc in ecology also at Bangor. He is currently funded by the Natural Environment Research Council to follow a PhD investigating genetic variation in Southern African snakes..
INVESTIGATION: PhD student Axel Barlow DNA sampling in the laboratory at Bangor University
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Apr 9, 2009|
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