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An international team of researchers have sequenced the genome of the Indian cobra, in the process identifying the genes that define its venom.

What is the significance?

  • This genome sequence can provide a blueprint for developing more effective anti-venom.
  • The cobra genome sequence is of really high quality.
  • Sequence information of the genes that code for venom proteins is very important for the production of recombinant anti-venoms.

Are existing anti-venoms not effective enough?

  • Their efficacy varies, besides producing side effects.
  • In India, the challenge has been producing anti-venom for the species known collectively as the “big four”,
    1. The Indian cobra (Naja naja),
    2. Common krait (Bungarus caeruleus),
    3. Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii), and
    4. Saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus).
  • Common anti-venom is marketed for the treatment of bites from the “big four”, but its effectiveness came under question in a recent study.
  • The common anti-venom worked against the saw-scaled viper and the common cobra.
  • But this anti-venom fell short against some neglected species and also against one of the “big four” – the common krait.
  • Facts – Accidental contacts with snakes lead to over 100,000 deaths across the world every year.
  • India alone accounts for about 50,000 deaths annually, and these are primarily attributed to the “big four”.

Why has production of effective anti-venom been challenging?

  • Venom is a complex mixture of an estimated 140-odd protein or peptides.
  • Only some of these constituents are toxins that cause the physiological symptoms seen after snakebite.
  • But anti-venom available today does not target these toxins specifically.
  • Anti-venom is currently produced by a century-old process.
  • In this process, a small amount of venom is injected into a horse or sheep, which produces antibodies that are then collected and developed into anti-venom.

What are the issues with this ‘horse technique’?

  • This is expensive, cumbersome technique and comes with complications.
  • Some of the antibodies raised from the horse may be completely irrelevant.
  • The horse also has a lot of antibodies floating in its blood that have nothing to do with the venom toxins.
  • One more problem with horse antibodies is that our immune system recognises it as foreign and when anti-venom is given our body mounts an antibody response. This leads to what is called serum sickness.

How does decoding the genome help?

  • In the Indian cobra genome, the researchers have identified 19 key toxin genes, the only ones that should matter in snakebite treatment.
  • They stress the need to leverage this knowledge for creation of safe and effective anti-venom using synthetic human antibodies.
  • The next step would be obtaining the genomes and the venom gland genes from the other three of the “big four” and the deadly African species.
  • However, there is a very long way to go from genomes to effective anti-snake venoms.
December 2023