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Mad About Seashells
02-23-2018, 11:59 PM,
Mad About Seashells
The snail’s proboscis was a hypodermic needle for its venom, a complex cocktail of up to 200 peptides. Quinton also knew that cone snails have at times killed people. But for the drug, called Prialt, researchers synthesized a single venom peptide that functions as a calcium-channel blocker, bottling up pain by interfering with signals between nerve cells in the spinal cord. The third day after he started taking Prialt, says Quinton, now 60, the pain in his legs went away. It wasn’t a miracle cure; he still had back pain. But for the first time in years, he could go out for a daily walk. He owed his recovery to one of the most underrated pastimes in human history: shell collecting.The peculiar human passion for the exoskeletons of mollusks has been around since early humans first started picking up pretty objects. Shellfish were, of course, already familiar as food: some scientists argue that clams, mussels, snails and the like were critical to the brain development that made us human in the first place. But people also soon noticed their delicately sculpted and decorated shells. Anthropologists have identified beads made from shells in North Africa and Israel at least 100,000 years ago as among the earliest known evidence of modern human culture.The craving for shells was even powerful enough to change the fate of a continent: at the start of the 19th century, when rival French and British expeditions set out for the unknown coasts of Australia, the British moved faster. The French were delayed, one of those on board complained, because their captain was more eager “to discover a new mollusk than a new landmass.” And when the two expeditions met up in 1802 at what is now Encounter Bay, on the south coast of Australia, a French officer complained to the British captain that “if we had not been kept so long picking up shells and catching would not have discovered the south coast before us.” The French went home with their specimens, while the British quickly moved to expand their colony on the island continent.

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