The Loom

Doctor Venom

venomdoc.gifI’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before this guy gets a show on cable. Bryan Fry is a biologist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and he spends a lot of his time doing this sort of thing–messing with animals you really really shouldn’t mess with. In addition to being telegenic, he rattles off those delicious Australian phrases, like, "No drama, mate." (Translation: No problem.)

While Fry is comfortable milking a king cobra in a jungle, he also has a lab-jockey side, using genomic technology to dredge up vast numbers of new snake venom genes. In tomorrow’s issue of the New York Times, I have an article about Fry’s latest research. He has offered a rough draft of the history of venoms–a 60 million year tale of gene recruitment and gene duplications and high-speed evolution. Understanding this history is a crucial part of Fry’s long-term goal of turning venoms into new drugs–a tradition that has already given rise to billions of dollars of sales each year and many lives saved. That may put him off-limits for IMAX movies, but television seems inevitable.


  1. #1 Charlie Wagner
    April 6, 2005

    You wrote:
    (New York Times, April 5, 2005)

    “The evidence indicates that the evolution of a typical venom gene may begin with the accidental duplication of a gene that is active in another organ. In a process known as gene recruitment, one of these copies then mutates IN SUCH A WAY that it begins producing proteins in the venom gland.

    In some cases, these borrowed proteins turn out to be harmful when injected into a snake’s prey. Natural selection then favors mutations that make these proteins more lethal.”

    What evidence would that be?
    What do you offer more than a just-so story that this is how it might have occurred?
    Can you elucidate any mechanism or believable hypotheses that explains how genes may be “recruited” to become venom-producing genes when that was not their original function?

    When I read stuff like this it’s really hard to keep from ROFLMAO.

  2. #2 Carl Zimmer
    April 6, 2005

    You are confusing a news article with a scientific paper. If you’d like details on Dr. Fry’s hypothesis, go to the original paper–which is available in full through the link I provided.

    I’ve also written here,


    and here about research on gene recruitment involved in other systems, such as eyes and immune systems. There are many papers in the scientific literature that explore gene recruitment in many other systems.

    I may not have room in a 1500 word article to refer to all this other research, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  3. #3 Charlie Wagner
    April 6, 2005

    Carl wrote:
    “You are confusing a news article with a scientific paper.”

    And you are confusing relatedness with phlogeny.

  4. #5 steve
    April 7, 2005

    Carl, Charlie Wagner is a troll. He believes he discovered a “Law” which disproves evolution. He’s posted thousands of comments on places like Pharyngula and Panda’s Thumb and will argue with you until you give up.

  5. #6 Hungry Hyaena
    April 13, 2005

    Wagner isn’t the only person who doesn’t understand the difference between popular journalism and a scientific paper. When one of my co-workers reads a newspaper article discussing a scientific finding, she usually complains that no “proof” of the featured discovery or theory is included in the article and, this being the case, proceeds to bemoan science as “silly.” I explain that she can usually find the abstract, and often the paper, online and several times I have actually printed the .pdf for her. When presented with the science, though, she finds it “unreadable” and “pretentious.” Apparently her tastes dictate what is fact and what shall remain fiction.

    I would also like to thank you for your excellent NY Times article on Fry. An amateur herpetologist, I have been eagerly following his venom work for several years. If you have time, you can read my enthusiast post on the subject at

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