DNA test identifies venomous snakes from their bites

If this snake bit you, would you know that it was a great lakes bush viper? (Photo: Shutterstock)

When a snake-bite victim shows up at a hospital, it's vitally important for caregivers to know what species of snake bit them. Without that knowledge, they won't know what sort of anti-venom – if any – is required. Making that ID could one day be much easier, thanks to a current study in which species were reliably identified via snake DNA obtained from fang marks in victims' bite wounds.

Directed by Dr. François Chappuis from Switzerland's Geneva University Hospitals, the international study was conducted at small medical facilities in Nepal and Bangladesh. Usable DNA could be collected from only about one in four wounds, although this was largely due to patients applying folk remedies before seeking professional treatment. In all cases where untainted DNA was obtained and the patient brought the dead snake with them, however, the researchers were able to able to confirm that the DNA-based ID was accurate.

In its current form, the identification process takes a fair bit of time and effort, so it isn't practical for everyday use. That said, the scientists are now working on a quick and simple "dip stick"-type DNA test – similar in form to a home pregnancy test – which could be used to rule out common venomous snakes as the culprit.

A larger multi-center clinical study will be conducted next, in Myanmar and Nepal.

The research was presented this week in New Orleans, at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene's Annual Meeting.

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