Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry by Christie Wilcox

Read July 2019
Recommended for people who really like venoms
★   ★   1/2

First of all, let’s just knock it off with those subtitles, shall we? Because I am so tired of having to rewrite them in my head. If you took all the biochemistry in this book and distilled it, I think you’d have fifteen pages, plus a couple of diagrams. So, no. How about, ‘Exploring Venoms and Their Various Effects’? Not sexy, I know. But frankly, is biochemistry? No, it’s not. In fact, they were the geeks at my school. The only ones higher on the nerd-brain scale were the neuro-psych majors. (You could argue geo-physics was pretty nerdy too, but I didn’t know anyone who actually did such things). What, you say? I digress? Well, yes, I do. Just like Wilcox does.

You want a very good review, please check out Jennifer’s thoughts here . I read it anyway, because Jennifer is a biologist, and I was kind of hoping there was a fair amount of information in here that she was taking for granted. Not really. Listen to Jennifer, people!

And I’ll tell you quite frankly, she was absolutely correct: Wilcox is not a very good writer. I hope she is better at research in the lab, because frankly, her anecdotes show she is also kind of terrible at decision-making in the field (approaching a Komodo dragon? Touching a rock without looking while diving? Sending kids to find sea urchins where they can find dangerous ones?) Furthermore, the pictures in the book are of rather poor quality. That is to say, were they blown up and poster-size, they’d be awesome resources. Shrunk to 5×4 inches, not so much. I can’t even read what’s going on. The one with the different animals acting on different parts of the clotting cascade is ridiculous, and not in a ha-ha kind of way.

But, if you are tempted, this is what you will find in Nine Chapters:

  1. Masters of Physiology: platypus. So cute! Except their venom-secreting spurs. Venoms and how chromotography advanced their study. Genomics now advancing it.
  2. Death Becomes Them: median lethal dosage to determine potency (with a Phylum chart, fun! Stay away from box jellies and taipans (snake) where it takes 0.01 IV. She then discusses some ins and outs of how humans perceived venoms through history, then segues into evolution. There’s a theory, the ‘Snake Detection Theory,’ that predation pressure pushed primates into needing more acute vision. This is tied to the fact that primates seem instinctively afraid of and visually sensitive to snakes, as well as the more ‘lethal’ snakes being the Old World vipers. She then points out mosquitos actual have the most ‘lethal’ venom in the sense that they kill millions through being a vector for bacteria. (There’s also an aside on what it might mean to kill all the mosquitos. Answer: no one is sure, but it’s a large biomass to remove).
  3. Of Mongeese and Men: co-evolution, mostly between snakes and victims. Goes into innate and adaptive immune systems, and a short bit on how some anti-venom is made by injecting a horse with venom and then harvesting blood a few weeks later. Back to co-evolution; the reason mongooses can shrug off venom is because it has evolved changes in the cells that most snake neurotoxins target. Pigs, honey badgers, and hedgehogs all have evolved versions of this as well. There’s some speculation that snakes may have developed more lethal venom because of pressure from predation. It concludes with a segment about “self-immunizers” who actually have an acronym, ‘SI,’ and are clearly a little nutty.
  4. To the Pain: bullet ants (with picture), scorpion fish, Odysseus. The ‘cost’ of making venom and the evolution pressure. Sea urchin spines (with picture). This feels like the least sciency- chapter and is about Wilcox being daring.
  5. Bleed it Out: a nice explanation of blood, platelets, hemoglobin and hemotoxic venoms. Searching for the Lonomia moth caterpillar in Peru, whose spines cause a hemorrhagic syndrome by first setting off a clotting cascade and causing DIC. Interestingly, she wears skinny jeans on the airplane, her luggage gets lost and so she has to wear them in the jungle, because she’s never learned anything about the carry-on spare outfit. Then there’s leeches. She tells a story of a college instructor’s story (!) and has this for a paragraph, “Some venom molecules start at the beginning of the clotting cascade, binding to the platelet receptors or exposed ECM components such as collagen. Others break down or tie up ADP, XA2, epinephrine, and serotonin to keep them from acting. Then there are the ones that act further down the line, blocking thrombin and its key role in coagulation. There are enzymes: phopholipases, metalloproteases, hyaluronidases, and apyrases….” The list continues, then a new paragraph goes on to all the ways leeches have been used and how three anticoagulants in use now are venom-derived. Last little bit is a journey to meet a Komodo dragon (and having to be told not to get too close!) and learning it’s bite isn’t toxic so much as an anti-coagulant.
  6. All the Better to Eat You With: venoms can cause necrosis. She spends two pages imagining this in general. There’s a little bit of biochem here, where the phosopholipases break down muscle cell membranes, but then gets vague, as in, “additional venom enzymes, including hyaluronidases and serine proteases, add to the carnage.” The cell death activates the immune response, so inflammatory pathways also cause some of the damage. The ‘spider bite’ people have that sends them to the MD are probably MRSA in many cases. Brown recluse bites are nasty as a result of sphingomyelinase D which is also found in bacteria toxin. Snake imagery was very popular on flags during 1778. Then there’s two pages on what makes a good venom protein: secreted, do fundamental biochemical actions, are fast-acting, are stable, and come in bunches.
  7. Don’t Move: the blue-ringed octopus illustrates the sodium ion channel, which Wilcox tries very hard to explain. There’s even one of those small diagrams. This leads into cone snails,  which, once they injected into the brain, discovered different effects, including a pain-killer for people but a paralytic for fish. She then discusses the evolution rate of the cone snail gene and how it came to evolve so many different toxins.
  8. Mind Games: snake venoms and the weirdos who use them to get high, the jewel wasp and it’s zombie-making-neurotoxic venom.
  9. Lethal Lifesavers: famous drugs from venoms, including the newest diabetes drugs (Trulicity) from the Gila monster and Captopril (pit viper vasodilator) as well as potentially harvesting immune response to use in cancer or immune disorders


tl;dr: I think if you lower your expectations, you might glean some factoids, depending on your biological or animal or evolutionary knowledge.
You are welcome. You all owe me a thorough book review.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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4 Responses to Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry by Christie Wilcox

  1. Melora Campbell says:

    Oh dear. I always appreciate your “heads up” about a title that sounds appealing!

  2. koeur says:

    Mosquitoes also virus vectors??

    • thebookgator says:

      Not sure which part you are questioning, koeur, but Wilcox makes the point that mosquitos, by themselves, are actually harmless. They are just the vectors that introduce a number of harmful viruses and parasites (as opposed to other creatures whose venom is actually harmful in and of itself).

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