Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Opossums and poison

The Virginia opossum (2nd image of baby, adult here) native to North America is not nearly as cute as the common ringtail possum (1st image of babies, adult here) of Australia, although they are both nocturnal marsupials with prehensile tails. But the American variety (Didelphis virginiana) of the 100+ species of opossum* has a special distinction. It was found to produce a protein known as Lethal Toxin-Neutralizing Factor (LTNF), which seeks and neutralizes poisons of all kinds that enter the opossum's body. The protein even made it immune to poisons from snakes on other continents to which it had not been previously exposed. A paper published in The Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins showed that mice injected with the LTNF protein could survive being subjected to venom from deadly creatures including Thailand cobras, Australian taipans, Brazilian rattlesnakes, and scorpions. When the mice that survived the venom were then exposed to deadly poisons like ricin and botulinum toxin, the LTNF protein was able to diffuse it, leaving the mice unharmed. The findings suggest that "Thus, natural LTNF from opossum serum has potential as a universal therapy for envenomation caused by animals, plants and bacteria." In other words, "Opossums may someday provide an antidote to nearly all forms of poison, including everything from snakebites to ricin." Oddly enough, that someday should have been yesterday. The paper was published in 1999...

 *The name of this animal can be spelled either "opossum" or "possum" and can be pronounced either way.
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