“We knew even as kids,” Olivera says, “that this snail was capable of killing humans and that it has a 70 percent fatality rate.” It’s a foggy morning in Salt Lake City, and Olivera is near a bank of fish tanks in his lab at the University of Utah. Inside one aquarium, a white-and-brown snail is burrowed in the sand beside a small goldfish. The invertebrate extends its thick snorkel-like siphon and lightly sniffs the fish’s underbelly.
Olivera, now 77, grew up to be a chemist but never shook his love for these slow-moving assassins. He’s now the lead scientist at a 25-person lab that studies cone-snail venom. His job is to figure out how it works, and, in turn, transform it into drugs that could soothe and save human lives. So far, his lab has isolated several promising molecules, including a few painkillers, and a fast-acting insulin that could let diabetics quickly control their blood sugar. Among the former is Prialt (for primary alternative to morphine). Aside from being the first federally OK’d drug to come from a lethal snail, it works on different receptors than opioids to alleviate chronic pain in cancer patients. In other words, it’s non-addictive. But it will never be a primary replacement for morphine because it needs to be pumped into a patient’s spine. These days, Olivera and his colleagues are trying to isolate a snail toxin that could be turned into a new class of painkillers that target different pathways than what’s now on the market. If successful, it could offer a substitute to addictive narcotics like oxycodone (which kills upward of 14,000 Americans a year) as the go-to medication for millions of chronic-pain sufferers.
The loblolly pine isn’t the first choice of Christmas tree lovers. It’s not as compact as fir or spruce, and its needles are longer, so it doesn’t hold ornaments well. But the loblolly has a storied history, nonetheless.
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The famous Eisenhower Tree, on the 17th hole of the Augusta National Golf Club, was the bane of President Eisenhower. He hit it so many times while playing that he asked the club to cut it down. To avoid offending the president, the club’s chairman abruptly adjourned the meeting, rather than reject his request. (In 2014, the late president finally got his wish when an ice storm damaged the tree so badly, it had to be removed.) Loblolly pine seeds also traveled aboard Apollo 14 and were planted all around the country upon their return, including on the grounds of the White House. Some of these moon trees still survive.
Today, the loblolly is serving a more noble purpose by helping limit the need for fossil fuels. Researchers, tinkering with the tree’s genetics, have found a way to reverse-engineer how the loblolly produces resin, a discovery that could help manufacturers produce greener alternatives for a range of goods now made with oil and gas, including surface coatings, adhesives, printing inks, flavors, fragrances, vitamins, household cleaning products, paint, varnish, shoe polish and linoleum.
“The chemical composition of resins is not very different from that of certain fractions currently obtained from crude oil,” said Mark Lange, a professor in Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. Lange wants to improve the production of resin to help reduce the chemical industry’s reliance on fossil fuels.