Our research has focused on venomous marine snails, in particular, those belonging to the genus Conus (“cone snails”). Cone snails are highly specialized venomous predators. We estimate that there are over 100,000 pharmacologically-active peptides in cone snail venoms, and well over 2,000,000 natural products in the venoms of all venomous marine snails (in the superfamily Conoidea). The major research project in our laboratory is the characterization of these venom components and the identification of their molecular targets, and exploration of potential biomedical applications.
The detailed molecular mechanisms underlying the capture of fish by the ca. ~100 fish-hunting cone snail species are being elucidated in considerable detail by our laboratory; most (but not all) active components in these venoms are small peptides (12-30AA), mostly targeted to ion channels and receptors in the nervous system. One of the peptides isolated by a University of Utah undergraduate in our laboratory has become an approved drug for intractable pain. Recently, we have discovered a novel source of previously inaccessible venomous snails, providing access to a much greater chemical diversity. The study of cone snails and their venom components has expanded our interests into addressing more general issues in chemical ecology and biodiversity research.