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May 22, 2009

Devil Firefish

The devil firefish (Pterois miles), one of more than 2,000 venomous teleostean fishes identified as part of National Science Foundation-supported research by W. Leo Smith and Ward C. Wheeler. Study findings were published in the Journal of Heredity.

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William Leo Smith, at the time a Lerner-Gray Postdoctoral Fellow in the division of vertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and now head of the division of fishes at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Ill., and Ward C. Wheeler, curator in the Museum of Natural History's division of invertebrate zoology, published a study in The Journal of Heredity (2006,97: 206-217) that suggests there are at least 1,200 species of venomous fish. Although these species are not new to scientists, the discovery that they are venomous is, with previous estimates putting the number of venomous fishes--including lionfish, catfish, scorpionfish, weeverfish, toadfish, surgeonfish, jacks, scats, rabbitfish, stargazers and stonefish--at 200.

The study--a large-scale molecular and morphological analysis of spiny-rayed fishes (fish with true fin spines), based on 233 species and more than one million nucleotides of DNA--is the first to examine the evolution of venomous fishes.

As part of their research, Smith and Wheeler developed a phylogeny, or "family tree," of venomous fishes--the first ever created. They used the museum's parallel computing cluster to analyze and compare DNA sequences from 233 species, and then checked the results of their data against specimens in the museum's extensive fish collection. The final outcome is a predictive "roadmap," or framework that can be used as a guide for the efficient discovery and exploitation of untapped fish venoms for potential pharmaceuticals.

"The results of this research were quite surprising," said Smith. "They indicate that more than 1,200 fish species should be presumed venomous, and we were able to corroborate this estimate by a detailed anatomical study examining potentially venomous structures in more than 100 species. Our results now suggest that more than 2,000 species of vertebrates are venomous. This tripling in number of venomous vertebrates comes exclusively from ray-finned fishes, making 'bony fishes,' not snakes, the most diverse group of venomous vertebrates."

Results of the study could prove useful in pharmacology research. Every year more than 50,000 injuries are reported worldwide that are attributed to venomous fishes, with symptoms ranging from blisters to intense pain, fever or even death. Fish venom effects the human nervous, muscular and cardiovascular systems, among others, yet fishes have never been examined for biologically active molecules (or compounds that affect the biochemistry of living things) that could be developed into potential drugs. The venom proteins offer a source for the development of drugs for the treatment of pain, cancer, infectious diseases, auto-immune diseases, allergies, and hypertension.

The project was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Fundamental Space Biology Program and the National Science Foundation, under grant DEB 04-5246. (Date of Image: 2006)

Credit: ©2006 Wm. Leo Smith

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