National Geographic : 2011 Jun
PHOTO: ZOLTAN TAKACS When handling venomous snakes like these sea kraits, Takacs wears two thick gloves on each hand to avoid bites. EXPLORERS JOURNAL Founded in 1888, the National Geographic Society has supported more than 9,000 explorations and research projects, adding to our knowledge of earth, sea, and sky. Snake Secrets Finding deadly snakes is seldom easy, but sea kraits are an exception. As they rose from the waves in Fiji, I grabbed four in rapid succession. Luckily, they rarely bite. Holding one by the head, I drew blood from its heart. Then I set it free. The DNA in its cells contains raw information about toxins in the venom. These are among nature's best killing molecules, the focus of my research at the University of Chicago. I've been fascinated by snakes ever since I raised puff adders in my room as a teenager in Budapest. Since then, as a herpetologist, pilot, scuba diver, and wildlife photographer, I've traveled to 134 countries to study all kinds of venomous snakes. My team unlocked the mystery of why cobras are not killed by their own venom. Our research may lead to new, lifesaving drugs to treat autoimmune diseases like diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Scientists have studied fewer than a thousand animal toxins, from which a dozen or so medications are derived. But some 20 million more exist. I aim to collect samples of as many as I can. This presents challenges: I've crossed paths with pirates, rebels, and forest elephants; survived six venomous snake bites; and been sprayed in the face by a spitting cobra. Because I have allergies to both venom and antivenom, I've learned to be more careful. Explorers have to know the limits. Then we can push those limits further. ---Zoltan Takacs • Zoltan Takacs M I S S I O N To develop new lifesaving drugs from venom.