First Advisor

Mackessy, Stephen P.

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For decades, snakes and snake venoms have been utilized in numerous

aspects of biological and biomedical research. Behaviorally, snakes have been

examined for their extraordinary chemosensory capabilities, providing a detailed

understanding of their foraging ecology and predatory responses. The presence of

a highly complex vomeronasal organ has enabled snakes to not only respond to,

but also discriminate between a high-range of heterospecific, conspecific,

predatory, and prey-derived chemical odors.

Snake venom has allowed for a transition in predatory behaviors, and this

often complex mixture of proteins and peptides has provided researchers with an

ever growing catalog of natural compounds that may be applicable as novel

therapeutics or as biomedical reagents. Research into venomous systems also

provides a detailed understanding of the biological roles of venom compounds, as

well as providing critical information necessary for the proper assessment and

treatment of snakebite.

The current work addresses several aspects of snake behavior and snake

venom toxinology and has four major objectives: i) to examine the chemosensory

responses of neonate, subadult and adult Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis

viridis) to various prey chemical stimuli, ii) to identify the chemical component(s) of

venom which allows for prey recovery during viperid predatory episodes, iii) to examine

the anti-cancer effects of a novel snake venom disintegrin towards various human derived

cancer cell lines and iv) to complete in-depth proteomic analyses of the neonate and adult

C. v. viridis and examine the efficacy of the current anti-venom treatment CroFab®

against this species’ venom.

Chapter I presents the objectives and aims of my dissertation work, and provides

background on chemosensory systems in squamates, and the numerous studies examining

prey relocation in viperid snakes. Further, this chapter addresses the importance of

examining the potential medicinal values of disintegrins as anti-cancer therapeutics, and

the utilization of proteomics to develop a better understanding of venom composition and

anti-venom efficacy. Chapters II focuses on the chemosensory responses of wild-caught

neonate, subadult, and adult C. v. viridis to natural and non-natural prey-derived chemical

odors. Results indicate that responses to chemical stimuli shift with snake age, correlating

with ontogenetic changes in snake diet. Chapter III examines this phenomenon in more

detail with a group of “stunted” C. v. viridis which had been in captivity since birth and

had only consumed neonate lab mice (Mus musculus). Further, these snakes were the age

of adults yet only the size of large juveniles, therefore they could not consume larger prey

normally taken by adult snakes. Results suggest that ontogenetic shifts in responsiveness

to natural prey chemical cues are innately programmed and are not based on body size or

feeding experience. Chapter IV identifies the venom component, disintegrins, which are

responsible for prey recovery during strike-induced chemosensory searching in Western

Diamondback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox). In Chapter V, a novel disintegrin protein

(named tzabcanin) was isolated from the venom of the Middle American Rattlesnake

(Crotalus simus tzabcan) and the cytotoxic and anti-adhesion properties of this protein

toward Colo-205 and MCF-7 cell lines was examined. Chapter VI also examines the anticancer

effects of tzabcanin towards A-375 and A-549 cell lines, and by specifically

binding integrin αvβ3, tzabcanin inhibits cell migration and cell adhesion to vitronectin.

In Chapter VII, a detailed proteomic analysis of the venoms of four individual C. v.

viridis is presented, showing a novel trend in ontogenetic changes in venom composition,

as well as identifying which compounds are, and which are not, effectively

immunocaptured by the current anti-venom therapy used in the United States, CroFab®.

Abstract Format



Snakes; Cancer; Venom; Proteomics


254 pages

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