Why would biologists think pacific northwestern garter snakes might hold the key to understanding paralysis?
It seems the rough skinned newt and its predator, the garter snake, have become involved in a lethal molecular battle. The newt produces a toxin called tetrodotoxin that could easily kill twenty or thirty people, yet amazingly, leaves the snake unharmed.
Butch Brodie of Indiana University was part of the team that recently discovered the sodium channel gene and amino acid change responsible for the snakes' resistance to the toxin. Apparently the sodium channel genes in the snakes' muscle cells continually evolve to adjust to the level of toxin in the newts, and only snakes feeding on these toxic newts show evidence of this evolutionary tactic. In addition to the important information on adaptation this research provides, scientists are interested because sodium channels are the basis of many genetic diseases that may cause paralysis. According to Brodie, that was a nice surprise.
Brodie: "We never would have guessed when we started working on these predator/prey relationships that someday we'd have people interested in neurological diseases interested in our system."
(SOUND: snakes hissing)
Garter snakes just may be the serpent solution scientists were searching for! I'm Eric Phillips.
"Imagine That!" covers projects funded by the U.S. government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at nsf.gov.