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W.E. Gutman: Putting an extra bite in snake venom

The Long View

Posted: May 22, 2010 2:18 p.m.
Updated: May 23, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Complex, delicate and scarce, snake venoms are not weapons of choice. But genetic engineers may have found a way to transform their individual components into formidable killers.

Chinese, North Korean and Russian scientists are said to be splicing genes in an effort to create a new breed of micro-organisms capable of producing cobra-like venoms. Endowed with this capacity, common bacteria such as E. coli, which thrives in the human intestinal tract, would mutate and provoke toxic and potentially fatal reactions.

Many of the toxic substances in reptile venoms are made of proteins, extremely large molecules composed of amino-acid building blocks. Until recently, the size and complexity of protein molecules had prevented synthesis. Recent advances may have helped simplify the manufacture of large quantities of super-toxic proteins.

Both genetic manipulation and direct protein synthesis mark a new, if unwelcome, milestone in the production of powerful reptile toxins, presumably for use as biochemical weapons.

Out of the 2,000 known snake species, 300 are venomous. All belong to four infamous clans: The Hydrophiidae (sea snakes); the Elapidae (kraits, mambas, cobras, coral and tiger snakes); the Viperidae (vipers); and the Crotalinae (copperheads, water moccasins, rattlesnakes, fer-de-lance and pit vipers).

Although the exact number of individual protein components making up snake venom is not fully known, they have been estimated at about 50. Many more substances remain unidentified. Among the known substances are individual toxins that lend themselves to chemical synthesis, thus enhancing the potential for weaponization. Two such components are neurotoxins, which short-circuit the central nervous system, and necrotic toxins, which devour and liquefy living tissue.

Neurotoxins inhibit and scramble nerve-to-muscle messages. They cause irreversible paralysis, respiratory failure and cardiac arrest. Necrotic toxins cause severe localized tissue destruction and hemorrhage.

While no declassified data exists in the scientific literature to indicate openly that snake toxins are being produced, the potential seems to be there and the unusually large number of papers published in Russia and Eastern Europe on snake venoms tends to indicate more than casual interest in such capacity.

William Kucewicz, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, went on record 25 years ago asserting that "snake toxin research is currently underway at a number of sites in the (then) USSR where, under the direction of Prof. Yuri Ovchinnikov of the Institute of Molecular Biology, to produce Naja naja oxiana (central Asian cobra) neurotoxins as biological weapons."

Although references to biotechnical manipulation of cobra neurotoxins remain curiously absent in the scientific press, credible Russian émigrés, among them Michael Sakharov, have reported attempts to splice venom-producing genes into viruses or bacteria.

Are other nations developing snake toxin-based weapons? If so, they're not talking. A survey of Chemical Abstracts indicates that several former Soviet satellites including Hungary, Poland, former East Germany, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia have shown keen interest in snake venoms research, with the latter two countries publishing by far the largest number of papers on the subject.

It is clear that snake venoms represent a rich source of potential agents which could be exploited by terrorists - foreign and homegrown - saboteurs and "regular" armies during offensive operations.

Present defense technology or even sufficient scientific data to define and neutralize the threat are lacking. And since the military do not possess field detection methods and medical treatment for snake toxins, their weapons potential and tactical use could impart a decisive advantage to the attackers.

Since the dawn of history, despots and benevolent rulers alike have recognized that control of their subjects is essential to their governance. Until recently, the capacity to twist the mind to conformity was crude and haphazard.

Today, mind manipulation is science fact, not fiction.

No longer a rare or arcane form of warfare to be used against the enemy, it has been widespread and practiced openly on hundreds of thousands of people - men, women, children, minorities, mental patients, prison inmates and the elderly.

We are all potential candidates for brainwashing, lobotomy, psycho-surgery, castration, behavior modification, aversion therapy, electro-convulsive shock treatment and direct brain stimulation.

We could also be unwitting guinea pigs for a bubbling cauldron of diabolical designer drugs, including snake venom-derived monstrosities capable of making us ill, denying us free will or yanking us out of reality as a merciful prelude to death.

Addiction to power through terror and death must be kicked. Handshakes, smiles, accolades, treaties and pen-swapping ceremonies between the "saner" inmates of this, our blue asylum in space, clearly do not suffice.

Pandora's box may be once more agape.

Only the voices of reason rising in revulsion against the merchants of death can ever seal it shut.

W.E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and the co-founder in 1986 of the now-defunct NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) Defense and Technology magazine. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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