SITE VISIT: When Snails Attack

Science  30 Jun 2000:
Vol. 288, Issue 5475, pp. 2279
DOI: 10.1126/science.288.5475.2279d

No mere garden grazers, the tropical marine snails called cone shells are hunters that launch harpoons tipped with a paralyzing poison at their prey and enemies. Long collected for their elaborately patterned shells, these mollusks have attracted a new set of fans among biochemists and molecular biologists, who are finding benign uses for cone shell venom. One toxic snail protein is being tested in clinical trials, for instance, as a stroke treatment and a nonaddictive alternative to morphine for relieving severe pain.

For a fascinating roundup of cone shell biochemistry, ecology, lore, and links, pay a visit to the Cone Shell and Conotoxins Home Page, created 5 years ago by neurochemist Bruce Livett of the University of Melbourne in Australia. Researchers may want to seek out a growing bibliography of cone shell papers, pages offering molecular structures of snail toxins, or the site's discussion group. Also valuable is the “What's New” section, where Livett posts everything from abstracts and meeting notices to links to popular articles and online museum exhibits.

Cone shell poisonings are rare—only about 30 deaths are known—but the site offers plenty of info about this intriguing topic, which Livett says is “a painless death.” Don't miss the video clips of cone shells, including a sequence in which the snail's mouth opens like an umbrella to engulf a squirming fish. For a more sedate experience, browse photos of striking specimens.

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