The Anomalies: Venom Race

A group of scorpions is evolving increasingly deadly toxins, and scientists might finally know how and why.

Scorpions have long been known for the menacing curve of their venomous tails, which can deliver notoriously painful stings to potential predators and prey alike. But it’s only been recently, with the advent of molecular analysis and rapid genetic sequencing, that scientists have been able to start decoding the complex chemical cocktails of the arachnids’ venom. Researchers can now identify not only the wide range of neurotoxins and enzymes that scorpion venoms contain, but also how these compounds are made, and how they affect their victims. This knowledge offers tremendous potential for the development of new drug therapies, and perhaps more urgently, for the development of new treatments for victims of scorpion stings.

Although the stings of most scorpions are harmless to humans, a select few can be fatal. Striped bark scorpions, a group of species found in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, inflict on average 100,000 stings and, until recently, caused more than a thousand deaths each year in Mexico alone. While finding a treatment to this public health concern has been a driving force behind studies of bark scorpion venom, there was one very basic question that had scientists scratching their heads: Why and how would such a tiny creature pack such a lethal punch? Now, researchers from the University of Oklahoma and the California Academy of Sciences think they’ve found the answers in the interplay between a diminutive but dauntless predator—a mouse that has a particular taste for these venomous invertebrates—and the scorpions’ own genetic makeup.

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