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Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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Cone Snails Use 'Weaponized Insulin' to Hunt Fish

Cone Snails

(Photo : Jason Biggs and Baldomero Olivera/Science Codex) Two species of cone snail use a special type of insulin to capture their fish prey.

Two species of cone snail have a unique way of hunting prey. They release fish insulin into the water to slow down the metabolism of their target fish.

A new study by researchers from the University of Utah discovered some cone snails use a weaponized form of insulin to disable fish. The two fish-hunting cone snails that have evolved this unique ability are Conus geographus and Conus tulipa.

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These fish use specially evolved fish insulin to induce hypoglycemic shock in their prey. The insulin causes the suppression of glucose in the fish's vital organs such as the brain, rendering the fish passive and easy to catch.

A synthesized form of this insulin was tested on zebrafish. When injected into the fish, this insulin caused blood glucose levels to crash. When dissolved into water, it disrupted swimming behavior and this effect intensified when the fish were exposed for longer periods of time.

"This is a unique type of insulin. It is shorter than any insulin that has been described in any animal. We found it in the venom in large amounts," said senior author Baldomero Olivera, a biology professor at the University of Utah.

The study suggests weaponized insulin allows cone snails to disable entire schools of fish at a time.

The team examined several representatives of cone snails: fish-, mollusc-, and worm-hunting varieties. The non fish-hunting types show they produce insulin specific to their prey, which suggests they produce a weaponized insulin as well.

Helena Safavi-Hemami from the University of Utah said insulin has never been described as part of animal venom. Inducing hypoglycemic shock in prey hasn't been reported for any other venomous animal.

The team is hopeful the snail insulin could help scientists better understand systems the human body uses to regulate blood sugar and metabolism.

This research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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