Fanged Coral Fish's Venomous Bite Could Lead to New Pain Treatments

A two fanged coral reef fish that disables predators with heroin-like venom could offer hope for the development of new painkillers. This image shows an x-ray of the two-inch fish's skeleton revealing the venomous fangs that jut out from its lower jaw

New research reveals that rather than stunning foes with a jolt of pain, the venom acts on the bitten fish's opioid receptors, causing it to become dizzy and lethargic. As the fish bites other fish, it injects morphine-like venom into their flesh which thus stops pain dead in its tracks instead of causing it.

When the researchers injected the blenny venom into mice, it didn't seem to cause the mice any pain. The proteomic analysis found that the components were a neuropeptide that occurs in cone snail venom, a lipase that resembles one found in scorpions, and an opioid peptide. "Fish with venomous dorsal spines produce immediate and blinding pain". Unlike most venomous creatures, blennies don't use this venom for capturing prey - they use it to escape their predators by getting them high.

But upon closer inspection, scientists discovered that fang blennies have a trait unlike any other animal. After putting the angry blenny back in its tank, they would extract the venom from the swab. The venom seems to pack a triple punch: It causes inflammation, disorients and slows down would-be predators, and does it all without freaking out its victims. The study also found evidence that suggests that the teeth from fang blennies evolved before the venom. However, the researchers observed about 40 percent drop in the mice's blood pressure.

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If you want to see evolution at its most lovely and deadly, look no further than this tiny fish that puts its predators into a drugged stupor. Blennies are a pretty large group of fish, and even among the ones with fangs, most haven't evolved these impressive venom glands.

This means that we should protect the environment in which the venomous fang blenny lives.

These "deceitful imitations", the study authors said, are practicing mimicry, an evolutionary strategy that drives species to look like other species sharing their habitat that have better defenses against predators - such as toxins.

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A team of researchers based in Australia and England published (paywall) work on March 30 in Current Biology describing the unusual composition of blenny venom. "While the feeling of pain is not produced, opioids can produce sensations of extremely unpleasant nausea and dizziness", says Brian Fry.

Extracting the tiny fish's venom for chemical tests was no easy feat. So, the Meiacanthus genus of fang blenny evolved venom, co-opting these teeth from their ancestral action of scooping out chunks of flesh, for the delivery of venom to fight off potential predators or compete with other small fish for hiding spots in the coral.

Dr Casewell said: "These unassuming little fish have a really quite advanced venom system, and that venom system has a major impact on fishes and other animals in its community". We spoke with Bryan Fry, a biologist at the University of Queensland, about his findings and the chances this newly discovered resource will survive the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef.

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