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Fighting snails with snails

Conus marmoreus
Conus marmoreus
Synonyms: Conus bandanus
Common Name: Marbled Cone

Hawaiian mollusks and CTAHR scientists are unlikely allies in the battle against an invader that threatens agriculture and human health worldwide. Prolific breeders and voracious eaters (known to feed on at least 500 types of plants), African land snails are listed among the Global Invasive Species Database’s top 100 invasive species and ranked 10th on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s list of priority quarantine gastropods.

But these snails not only wreck havoc on Hawai‘i crops; they also harbor the “rat lungworm” parasite Angiostrongylus cantonensis. When accidentally consumed, this parasitic nematode can trigger meningitis, swelling of the brain and spinal cord. Once active in the central nervous system, the parasite can cause permanent brain damage and retardation.

Unfortunately, the pesticides developed to combat the land snails, such as malathion, are also toxic to humans and pets. And importing predator snails may introduce new threats to already endangered native snail species. So molecular bioscientists are looking at endemic Hawaiian cone snails, whose venom is capable of incapacitating human beings and potentially causing death, for clues to a natural, biodegradable molluscicide.

Zachary Bergeron
Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering doctoral candidate Zachary Bergeron

Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering (MBBE) doctoral candidate Zachary Bergeron screens the venom of the Conus textile marine snail to identify prospective compounds. Cone snail venom is an ideal candidate, he says, because it has been evolutionarily tailored to incapacitate the other marine mollusks C. textile preys on.

Zachary uses a fluorescent assay, a novel tool developed in the laboratory of his advisor, Assistant Professor Jon-Paul Bingham. Biofluorescence serves as a sort of molecular light bulb for measuring the activity of peptides. Peptide toxins are short strings of amino acids that are chemically similar to proteins. They give snake, spider, scorpion, and snail venom its punch by targeting ion channels that regulate physical processes in the nervous system.

Zachary is looking for bioactive molecules that could be potential building blocks for safer, more targeted pesticides for agricultural pest control, but the process also has implications for pharmaceutical development.

In recognition of the caliber and potential community benefit of his work, Zachary recently received the 2013 CTAHR Research Symposium Best PhD Oral Presentation Award and the ARCS Foundation’s Helen Jones Farrar and Honolulu Scholar of the Year Awards.

This impact story from the CTAHR Office of Communications Services was originally published on the CTAHR website on August 5, 2013.