Venomous snake and spider bites can be painful and possibly life-threatening events for those unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end. However, scientists now have found that the venom released into the body from such attacks could be even more dangerous than previously thought.
While venom can be very dangerous, it is also considered by some to be generally sterile—that is, free of bacteria. This is due to the fact that it is full of antimicrobial substances.
Roughly 75 percent of the 2.7 million people bitten by venomous animals every year will develop infections in the affected area, but this was thought to be because bacteria can enter the open wound and infect it, as opposed to bacteria coming from the bite itself.
Now, scientists aren’t so sure.
Researchers from the U.K. have found strong evidence that bacteria can evolve to survive in the venom glands of animals and even in the highly toxic liquid venom itself.
To come to their finding, the researchers investigated the venom of five snake and two spider species. They found that all of the venom they tested was host to bacterial DNA.
Once the bacterial DNA was sequenced, they found that the bacteria had mutated over time to become resistant to the harsh venom environment.
“This is extraordinary because venom is like a cocktail of antibiotics, and it is so thick with them, you would have thought the bacteria would not stand a chance,” said Sterghios Moschos, associate professor in cellular and molecular sciences at Northumbria University and leader of the study, in a university press release. “Not only did they stand a chance, they had done it twice, using the same mechanisms.”
One type of bacteria in particular, Enterococcus faecalis, was found in the venom of black-necked spitting cobras. When isolated and exposed to the highest concentrations of the venom the researchers could get, they found that it “happily grew” under these harsh conditions, Moschos said. A classic hospital bacteria, by comparison, could not survive at all when exposed to the venom.
The researchers say their finding shows that medics should consider treating venomous bite victims for infection as well as the toxic effects of the venom itself.
“These results shed light on how bacteria evolve for survival in one of the most extreme environments on Earth and how venomous bites must be also treated for infections,” the study reads.
The research, titled “Bacterial Adaptation to Venom in Snakes and Arachnida,” was published in the journal Microbiology Spectrum on May 23.
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