Dive Time with Tim Grollimund

Scorpionfish venom put to good use

December 9, 2013 

A diver comes through Christmas Tree Cave watching the glassy sweepers, with a scorpionfish lurking beneath.


When I have a new photography student, we discuss what we will shoot on the first dive. 

After shooting the exposure slate at various settings, my rule for the first dive is simple. We do not shoot anything that moves. Period (perhaps that's a bit of an over-used proclamation these days!)

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I want the student to be comfortable with the camera and feeling relaxed when framing subjects. The easiest way to do that is to shoot something that is not moving. Plus, if a person can't relax enough to get a proper exposure on a sedentary object, the probability of success shooting a moving object is certainly lower.  

I want them to have success. A properly exposed and nicely composed sea fan is a very important shot on that first dive. The base of a sea fan, a coral head or branch, an eel, or a scorpionfish are all fair game on that first jump in the water.

In fact, scorpionfish might be one of the easiest of all. You pretty much have to poke them to get them to move, and sometimes they present themselves in a much more pleasing setup than an eel.

Scorpionfish are another of the bottom dwelling predators that are prevalent on the reef. I don't see them on every dive, like yellowtail snapper or chubs or bluehead wrasse, but they are around quite often. I have not had a stinging encounter with one, but have come close a couple times when I was not paying attention. 

In the minnow caves, or at Fire Coral Cave, I almost bumped into one a time or two. I saw a diver once who was struggling with his buoyancy hit the bottom in a patch of rocks, and a scorpionfish popped out from between the two rocks he landed on. That was a close one.

There are six species in the scorpionfish family in the Caribbean, but I have not seen all of them. In the Pacific, there are dozens of species. I know I have not come close to making a dent in that list. And of course, the lionfish is a relative we could do without.

I have seen references to venoms used in medical and pharmacological research, so I thought I'd take a peak to see if scorpionfish are being studied. Wouldn't it be great if a medical use for lionfish venom were established and a viable market for lionfish venom developed? If that happened, I bet there wouldn't be may left in a matter of a few years. We can only hope.

Compounds from scorpionfish venom are being studied for use in identifying tumors. The venom also has cardiovascular effects.

There is much left to be done in studies involving marine venoms, but significant findings and formulations have entered the marketplace.

Animal venom is already big business. The first venom-related drugs in modern use were derived from snake venoms, particularly the pit viper. The anticoagulant Arvin and hypertension drugs called ACE inhibitors are widely used. Some other applications include heart medicine from African tree snakes, diabetes treatments from the Gila monster and neurotoxin from the giant deathstalker scorpion to treat brain cancer cells.

On the marine front, according a National Geographic article, cone snails "are like little drug companies that have engineered their own compounds to suit their needs." The painkiller Ziconotide (Prialt) is chemically identical to one of the components in the snail venom.

Perhaps the most far-reaching thought from Zoltan Takacs, the subject of the NatGeo article, is that diversity of life, particularly molecular biodiversity, is under great pressure in today's ecosystems. How may compounds and potential medical applications could disappear with a venom-producing species? His opinion is we are at risk of losing opportunities to identify helpful components from toxins faster than we can examine them. The full article, by Jennifer Holland, is a good read: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/02/125-venom/holland-text

In Europe, Pierre Escoubas started Venome Tech, and he is also part of the European Union Venomic research project. They are building a massive database of compounds based on venom. See  http://www.venomics.eu/ for the details.

For marine species, the cone snails are just the tip of the needle, so to speak. A comprehensive list of fish with toxins is here: http://timgimages.com/PDF/Venom_Widespread_in_Fishes.pdf. According to the authors, William Smith and Ward Wheeler, their estimate of venomous fishes exceed 1,200, a lot higher than the historical estimate of about 200 species.  

This "bioprospecting" model essentially constructs a roadmap to new potential pharmacological agents from previously unexplored fish venoms based on phylogeny (groupings based on similar molecular characteristics).

They use an analogy from land, where the drug paclitaxel, used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer, was extracted from a threatened species of yew tree. It took several trees to produce a dose. Because they could relate specific chemical characteristics to a similar, but non-threatened yew species, the drug can now be produced without harming the yew populations.

The knowledge of these specific characteristics saved significant time and costs in developing the alternative. That saves lives. Applying this road map to marine species, which have barely been explored, could produce many new beneficial medicines.

The value of the reef keeps growing and growing, the more I learn. The protection of biodiversity has a whole new meaning to me after learning about venom studies, and the application of the phylogenetics. 

Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo.  He can be reached at tim@timgimages.com or through his web site at www.timgimages.com.

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