Research at the Olivera Laboratory at the University of UtahOne of the most exciting frontiers in science is understanding how our own brain works. Recent advances in molecular neuroscience make it clear that the basic principles that underlie the function of all nervous systems (including our own) are going to be similar. Nervous systems transmit information both electrically and chemically. Among the most important proteins in nervous systems directly involved in information transmission are the ion channels on nerve cell surfaces. These come in two flavors, the ion channels that either open or close as a result of a voltage change, and ion channels which detect chemical signals. Cloning has revealed that almost all ion channels have multiple molecular forms (“isoforms”), encoded by different genes. A major challenge both for understanding how the nervous system works, as well as for more applied biomedical aspects that involve diseases of the nervous system, is to be able to understand which ion channel isoform is involved in a particular aspect of nervous system function, or in a particular disease.
Our lab at the University of Utah has been working on an experimental biological system that provided an unexpectedly diverse tool kit for studying ion channels and differentiating between closely related molecular isoforms. These are the biologically-active components in the venoms of predatory cone snails, Conus. The cone snails that are studied the most hunt fish, and each different cone snail has ca. 100 distinct components in its venom, the majority of which affect the function of specific ion channels. The work in our lab involves using biochemistry, as well as doing physiological and pharmacological assays to characterize how each venom protein might affect a particular ion channel. Some of the cone snail components previously characterized by undergraduates in our laboratory are presently being developed as therapeutics for pain and epilepsy.