24 April 2019

Venomous, by Christie Wilcox

Posted by Callan Bentley

Here’s a fascinating book that combines biology and chemistry with human health and ecological consciousness. Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry is Christie Wilcox’s masterful account of all things that inject toxins into other creatures. The book covers how those toxins are produced, how evolution has modified them, how they get injected and what happens then. Caterpillars and playpuses, jellyfish and ants and octopuses, sea urchins and shrews and tarsiers all inject venom, as well as spiders and snakes. Different organisms have different goals, and their venoms reflect that. Sometimes venoms appear similar because of descent from a common ancestor, and in some cases they have converged from quite disparate groups. Sometimes they are just one compound, but often (especially among organisms who use their venoms to get their dinners) they are a cocktail of different molecules. Wilcox does a great job writing up the most fascinating of stories, never tarrying too long on any one critter, and moves elegantly through adventure travel, scientific experimentation, pharmacological insights, and the pathological details of bites from these masters of biochemistry. Along the way, she debunks old ideas (like about Komodo dragons having foul spit rather than venom) and excites with tantalizing new notions (like bee venom as a potential cure for Lyme disease). A fascinating book, of just the right length. Thumbs up!