The venom of Gila monsters shows promise in treating diabetes.
The study of hearing in certain flies is helping experts make improved hearing aids.
The list goes on and on. Conservationists, however, say the challenge is to design models for bioprospecting that link such discoveries to conservation.
Pointing to the example of bats, Cahoon noted, "Bats have incredible echolocation. They don't just send out sonic impulses and realize there is a bug in a certain corner. They have the capability to send out general broadcasts of sonic energy and actually see with sound. They can holographically map an entire area, down to the smallest detail."
Scientists still don't understand how bats do it. "It's an incredibly sophisticated system," Cahoon said. "Sooner or later we are going to figure out how it works, and then the military will want that knowledge, private companies will want it. When that happens, I want bats to benefit."
For now, Cornell's bioprospecting venture focuses solely on spiders, because their variety of venoms holds so much promise. "There are almost 40,000 described species of spider, and possibly two or three times that not yet described," said Chuck Kristensen of Spider Pharm in Yarnell, Arizona. Spider Pharm is a company that produces venom for research use.
Almost all spiders have venom, although only a fraction of spiders are harmful to humans. "Each spider's venom can have dozens or hundreds of different components. It's an incredibly large reservoir of material we don't understand yet," Kristensen said.
Kristensen has been raising and "milking" spiders for their venom for almost 25 years. His office has 50,000 spiders representing about 50 different species. Milking their venom is labor intensive.
"To get one gram [three-hundredths of an ounce] of black widow venom, it takes 50,000 to 100,000 milkings. One milking takes one minute. So it can take us a year to get one gram," he said.
Making the Link
Spider Pharm will just be one partner in Venom Venture, which organizes a number of other organizations into a financial circle to increase the likelihood of discovering a hit drug or other useful compound.
"There will be an advisory board of scientists who create a list of spider species they think look especially promising. That board will be composed of entomologists, natural-product chemists, chemical ecologists, and other experts," Cahoon said.
A consortium of conservation and research groups around the globe will then collect the spiders. So far, partners include groups in China, Columbia, and the United States.
The spiders that researchers collect will be sent to Spider Pharm, which will be charged with keeping the spiders alive and extracting their venom. The spider toxins will then be shipped to Cornell for an initial screening.
The results of those screenings, along with the spider venom, will be distributed to various commercial companies. Those companies will then take on the bulk of the research effort.
If a compound useful to science is found, the financial benefits will flow back to the network that provided the initial samples. The money will be used for conservation.
"People have been looking to enrich themselves by taking advantage of all that nature has to offer to science throughout human history," Cahoon said. "It's time to start directing those benefits back to the natural world that provided them."
For more on this subject, watch Infested, Saturday, August 14, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel (U.S. only).
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