Saturday, June 21, 2008

Black Widows Part 1: The Chemistry of Venom

So here’s what my kids found in the garage- a Black Widow, Latrodectus hesperus.

Tangent: It should be noted that this is- yes- another great wildlife photo, even if it is in my garage, and therefore another positive step forward in my continuing journey of redemption as a wildlife photographer.

6 years ago, when we moved into our house, the previous owners left only 1 thing behind- a small pile of bricks in the garage. I assume they left it; for all I know the previous owners left it for them. Who knows, maybe it pre-dates the house? Maybe the pile of bricks was left by the first Mormon pioneers, or even the Donner party as they struggled to lighten their load.

Tangent: The Donner party almost certainly passed within 100 yards of our house.

In any event, the Black Widow, a female, was sitting in her web spun between the brick pile and the garage wall, And when I tried to dispatch her, she scurried into the bricks of the ancient, timeless brick-pile.

There are so many fascinating aspects of the Black Widow, but I’ll focus on just 2 of them before getting to the main point of this 2-part post: chemistry (today) and lust (tomorrow).

There are 31 species of Latrodectus in the world, spread across every continent except Antarctica. 4 of those 31 are native to North America, and 3 of those are “Black Widows”. The Western Black Widow, most common in Utah, is Latrodectus Hesperus.

Everybody knows that Black Widow venom is dangerous. What most don’t know, and biologists are still unraveling, is how phenomenally complex it is. Black Widow venom is 15 times more potent than Rattlesnake venom, but rarely kills adult humans, because the amount injected is so minute. (The venom does an excellent job of sickening predators who consume it, who presumably then remember the bad meal and its distinctive red hourglass marking, avoiding it in the future.)

There are a whole slew of active ingredients in Black Widow venom; you could probably structure an entire organic chemistry class around the chemical composition of it. But the most important and distinctive active ingredients are a series toxins called latrotoxins. Latrotoxins are monster-sized molecules with dozens of different atoms (atomic weight > 120kDa) and exactly how all of them work is not yet completely understood. Black Widow venom contains at least 7 different latrotoxins: 5 that work specifically on invertebrates (ie. Bugs), 1- called alpha-latrotoxin, and which is the best-studied and understood- that works specifically on verterbrates (i.e. us). Alpha-latroxin is tetramer, a type of big-ass protein molecule consisting of 4 distinct pieces. The 7th and final latrotoxin works specifically on crustaceans.

Tangent: This last one is particularly interesting. There’s only 1 genus of land-based crustacean in the world: Armadillium, which we know as Woodlice or Potato Bugs. Evidently these critters have been an important enough food source (since no Woodlouse could conceivably be a predator to Latrodectus) to support the evolution of the crustacean-specific latrotoxin. And in fact, when I swept out behind the brick-pile, I swept up dozens and dozens of dried-out woodlice carcasses…

We’ve visited lots of great organic chemistry examples already this Spring: Monarch butterflies, the Black-headed Grosbeak, Low Larkspur, Snowflies, Poison Ivy and Wild Iris, allelopathy in Dyers Woad and even reverse-allelopathy in Musk Thistle, but Black Widow venom seems the most complex, sophisticated and finely-tuned of any we’ve looked at to date. And that’s probably been one of the biggest surprises for me of writing this blog- how fascinating and elegant the chemistry of living things is. In high school and college I suffered through Chemistry classes bored out of my mind. If they’d explained to me how amazing and important chemistry is in the real, living world, I would have been a lot more interested.


fruzzetti said...

I'm glad to read SOMEWHERE about black widow venom. We live in a California town that's rife with them this season and since I have two young children I was trying to find more information -- do you know of any venomologists who specify in widows?

fruzzetti said...

I'm glad to read SOMEWHERE about black widow venom. We live in a California town that's rife with them this season and since I have two young children I was trying to find more information -- do you know of any venomologists who specify in widows?

Professor Luticor said...

I caught a widow down in one of the BYU engineering labs and have been trying to find more about it. I'm glad to finally find a good explanation of black widow venom. I especially liked the part about the crustacean neurotoxin.

Krispin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Krispin said...

I got bit by one of these near my knee when I was vacationing in Mexico last December. Do you know what tissues it targets? It was an interesting experience, but my knee has become sensitive to pressure since that day.

Anonymous said...

It does not target tissue it is a neurotoxic venom.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know of a good place to find the chemical/molecular structure, or a representation of a strand of DNA from the latrodectus mactan.

Sean O'Gorman said...

Does anyone know where to get the chemical/molecular structure of Lat. Mactan venom or silk?