Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Snakes to the Rescue!

A short, thin snake on the desert ground.
A very young Mojave desert sidewinder rattlesnake in California David McNew/Getty Images

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Among my friends and family, I’m known as the weird snake lover.

Because of that, every few weeks or so I’ll get a text with a grainy photo of a snake in a yard or by a local creek and some version of the message “let live or kill??” Nine times out of 10 it’s a harmless species of snake. But every single time, venomous or no, I’ll tell my friends to leave the poor reptile alone.

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This isn’t borne out of my love for snakes, per se, even though I am definitely a fan (and because the most snake bites occur when humans try to move them). It’s because we understand so very little about a species that’s been feared and maligned for years. And as research continues and technologies evolve, one thing is becoming clear—snakes are potentially very useful in drug development, particularly venomous snakes.

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That realization has never been truer than this year. Just recently the University of Arizona published a study identifying a key molecular mechanism responsible for COVID-19 mortality: an enzyme related to the toxins found in rattlesnake venom. Now, researchers are exploring whether there are ways to engineer the enzyme to treat long-haul COVID.

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Research on snakes has historically been slow and fragmented, and for understandable reasons. Snake encounters used to be fairly rare, especially in developed countries, and many venomous species are elusive. But as climate change shifts environments and human settlements grow, snake encounters have been on the rise in some parts of the world.

The good news is that as technological advances continue and databases grow in the genomics, proteomics, and transcriptomics fields, our understanding of how venoms can lead to new medicines has started to flourish, and not just as treatments for COVID. One of the first blood pressure drugs approved for clinical use came from studying the venom of a pit viper. The blood glucose drug Byetta was created using the saliva of the Gila monster, a venomous lizard found in North America. The antiplatelet drug Aggrastat was derived from a molecule found in the saw-scaled viper.

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And we might even have a universal antivenom in as little as five years. That’s according to researchers at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Centre for Snakebite Research and Interventions who are studying how to use camels to produce more stable antivenom that doesn’t require cold chain storage. This is huge news, especially for people in rural parts of the world, because antivenom is currently prohibitively expensive and hard to transport.

All of this is to say that while I love snakes, this isn’t a love letter to them, or a reprimand to anyone I see on Facebook asking if they should kill the snake in their yard. It’s a call to pause and consider the future the next time you stumble across a snake—or other creepy crawly species—and decide you should unalive it. If at all possible, don’t. The vast majority of snake species are harmless. And even if you do encounter the venomous kind (or, as I like to call them, a spicy nope rope), your best bet is to live and let live. Because there’s a future not too far from now where that scaly creature could very well save someone’s life.

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Here are stories from the recent past of Future Tense.

Wish We’d Published This 

Behind Elon Musk’s Twitter Poll Is a Tax Bill Coming Due,” by Stephen Gandel, the New York Times

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I’m very interested in per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS, the toxic “forever chemical” that the EPA recently announced a roadmap to try to tackle. Specifically, I’m fascinated by what the tipping point has to be for countries to start regulating dangerous chemicals. Knowing that, a friend recommended I read Fake Silk by Paul David Blanc, which came out in 2016 and is very reminiscent of the current conversations happening around PFAS. The book follows the story of cellulose viscose, otherwise known as fake silk, a lucrative material that was used to make products such as rayon, tires, cellophane, and kitchen sponges. The manufacturing process was also toxic to humans—causing many factory workers who came into contact with the material to experience acute insanity, according to Blanc, along with other physiological symptoms. I’m about three-quarters of the way through the book, but so far it’s raising a lot of questions I see echoed in today’s conversations about other contaminants—particularly, how much of human and environmental health are industries willing to sacrifice for profit and—most importantly—will we ever learn from our mistakes?

What Next: TBD

On this week’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary talks to Indiana University’s Aaron Carroll about why some parents who have been vaccinated themselves are reluctant to get their kids immunized—and how to persuade them otherwise. Last week, Lizzie and Priya Anand, a reporter at Bloomberg, discussed how schools turned to surveillance software while students were remote—and now seem disinclined to stop monitoring kids’ online behavior.

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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.