Cone Snails Are Really Weird, But They Might Save Your Life Some Day


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockOct 11 2017, 13:03 UTC

In the lab, the cone snail has learned to exchange venom for dinner. Here, a snail extends its proboscis and discharges a shot of venom into a latex-topped tube. Alex Holt/NIST

There are very few good ideas that nature hasn’t already worked out. Take, for example, the humble cone snail. It might look like just an ugly grabby thing poking out of a pretty shell, but researchers believe these carnivorous sea creatures could help scientists make some big biomedical breakthroughs in the future.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are particularly curious about molecules within the cone snail's venom and their unusual method of administering it. Over the past few months alone, this team’s research has been published the three journals, Scientific Reports, the Journal of Proteomics, and Neuropharmacology. That's a lot of research.


"Cone snails are so unusual," explained NIST biochemist Frank Marí. "They are not really like any other creature on Earth, and working with them is almost like working with an extraterrestrial. But that's also fun. The cone snail system is like a candy store to someone like me."

Cone snails are slow creatures, as you would expect from a snail, so, they shoot out a harpoon-like tooth loaded with venom into their speedier prey, which includes fish and worms. Once the harpoon has hit the prey and paralyzed it, the sneaky snail reels it into its shell and begins to chow down. However, for this to work, the venom has to work incredibly quickly on the victim’s nervous system. The researchers believe they can use the properties of this venom to work out how to deliver medicines to a patient’s body in a quicker and more efficient manner.

On a molecular level, this cone snail venom is proving to be very interesting. In the Journal of Proteomics, they describe how an enzyme in the venom, Conohyal-P1, is also found in lionfish and bee venom, as well as mammals' sperm, where it’s used to weaken cell walls in the ovaries and allow the entry of sperm cells.


For their paper in the journal Neuropharmacology, Marí and his team studied the effects of the toxins in the cone snail venom on the central nervous system of poor unsuspecting fruit flies. Oddly, the venom primarily took place in the receptors that govern addiction, providing hope it could be used to develop a nicotine addiction treatment.

The study in Scientific Reports found the venom also impacts on the immune system, not just the central nervous system. This, they say, could lead to better understanding the growth of undesirable cell in conditions such as gastric, breast, and lung cancers.

"The pattern on a cone snail shell is very beautiful," added Professor Marí. "But I think the biology and biochemistry are even more beautiful, and as we explore all the different aspects of the venom, we can open all kinds of new opportunities for medical use."

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