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Cone snails have inspired humans for centuries. Coastal communities have often traded their beautiful shells like money and put them in jewelry. Many artists, including Rembrandt, have featured them in sketches and paintings. Now, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are finding these deadly predators inspiring, too, as they seek new ways to cure old medical problems using the poisonous snails as models.
"This is the same venom used to kill dinosaurs in 'Jurassic Park,'" says NIST biochemist Frank Marí, with a chuckle. "It is scary stuff, but that power could be used for a different kind of good in real life."
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Like all NIST scientists, Marí measures things. Specifically, he measures RNA and the associated proteins at work inside marine animals. As technology has improved over the years, he and his team have become better able to examine, analyze and catalog the molecules at work in some of the ocean's lesser-known creatures, including cone snails. This year, his lab made several significant discoveries about their venom, discoveries that might ultimately lead to the development of new medicines for hard-to-treat diseases. By imitating the way that these small, quiet creatures deliver poison, scientists may be able to better deliver cures.
On any given day, Marí can be found walking up and down the rows of burbling aquarium tanks at the Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, checking on the 60 individual cone snails that have lived in his lab for the past 15 years. Once a week, he and his staff make a kind of delicate negotiation with them, trading a dead fish for a dose of poison to be gathered in a tube and stored away for use in ongoing scientific measurements and investigations.
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"Cone snails are so unusual," Marí says. "They are not really like any other...
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