Please tell us about yourself

A Bangor University PhD student was one of the scientists who featured in the National Geographic recently after they identified a new species of viper.

Mrinalini,  from Bangalore, India, who has been working as part of a group of scientists led by Dr Anita Malhorta within the School of Biological Sciences at Bangor, had her work published after discovering the ruby-eyed green pit viper and another similar species with yellow eyes called the Cardamom Mountains green pit viper.

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Please tell us about your work

The article reported how the two new species have been identified as being separate from the big-eyed pitviper (Cryptelytrops macrops). The identification was the result of over twelve years of work in the field, detailed analysis of physical characteristics, and genetic analysis which is very important since physical characteristics can be very similar between a wide range of species.

The work was led by Dr Malhotra, in collaboration with Professor Roger Thorpe and Dr Bryan Stuart (who at the time was a PhD student at the Field Museum in Chicago, but is presently Curator of Herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh, USA). However, much of the genetic work was undertaken by Mrinalini.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Mrinalini said: “I grew up watching NGC and Discovery channels reading the magazines and always dreamt of being on the other side! Some of my red crab photos were published on National Geographic last year and now I also have my PhD work featured on it! It is a very exciting time for me!

About her research work, she said: “The identification of new species sometimes requires genetic evidence, especially in the case of morphologically cryptic groups such as the southeast Asian pitvipers. Using DNA fingerprinting, I could get genetic information from the entire snake genome. When I analysed this data, the results clearly showed that Cryptelytrops rubeus (the ruby-eyed pitviper) and Cryptelytrops cardamomensis (from Cardamom Mountains of southwestern Cambodia) were genetically distinct from each other and from the original type species Cryptelytrops macrops under which they had been included in the past.”

What did you study?

Mrinalini finished her basic education up until MSc in zoology in India and came to Bangor to do a second MSc in Ecology to improve her chances of getting into a PhD. She is now studying a PhD on the molecular evolution and systematics of southeast Asian pitvipers and is currently in her fourth year of studies.

How was the PhD experience?

She said: “The PhD has been a great learning process in terms of project management, problem-solving, and time management. It has, of course, also provided me with a greater understanding of my subject area.

“When I was in India, I was very specific and clear that I wanted to study snakes. I was looking at US and Australian universities initially and most of them had two-year masters programs. I had already done one in India and wasn’t too keen on spending two more years doing a second masters. Then luckily, I came across Bangor University which had a one-year masters which included a dissertation.

“Bangor was the only University I applied to – what was most important to me was that Bangor had a congregation of world-class herpetologists who were doing some great research on reptiles.

What are you doing currently?

A proposal by NUS Biological Sciences researchers to sequence the genome of the Temple Pitviper has been selected as one of the five finalists — out of more than 200 entries globally and the only entry from Asia — in the 2017 Plant and Animal SMRT Grant Program. Supporters can vote for their favourite project once a day from now till 5 April.

The team is led by Professor R Manjunatha Kini from NUS Biological Sciences and consists of Dr Mrinalini, Research Fellow at NUS Biological Sciences, and Dr Ryan McCleary, Postdoctoral Fellow at Utah State University.

Prof Kini explained why the study of snakes matters. “One is to make people aware of the importance of snakes and their toxins, and how they improve our lives, in particular, with newer drugs,” he said. He added that it is exciting to improve our knowledge about our surrounding environment as well.

The Temple Pitviper belongs to the viper family. Native to Southeast Asia, this species can be found locally in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve as well as around the MacRitchie, Lower Peirce and Upper Peirce Reservoirs. In Malaysia, many Temple Pitvipers are found in the Temple of the Azure Clouds, popularly known as the Snake Temple. Unlike some of its fearsome relatives, the Temple Pitviper is docile and rarely attacks humans.

In response to the competition to sequence the world’s most interesting genome, the team proposes to uncover the secrets of the Temple Pitviper given its unique characteristics. The Temple Pitviper produces unusual toxins compared to other snakes. Dr Mrinalini said, “There’s a stark difference between the male and female sexes (in this species) which is very rare in snakes.” Interestingly, the neonates and juveniles of both sexes look the same but the adults are sexually dimorphic. She said, “It is not clear if sex-based differences are also found in their venom and dietary habits.”

The potent venom produced by the Temple Pitviper contains toxins not found in other snake species, an example being a class of novel toxins called Waglerins which impede neuromuscular functions. Physically, the adult male and adult females exhibit distinctive differences in terms of scale pattern, colour and size. Snake genomes typically contain 25,000 to 30,000 genes, which is similar to the number of genes found in other vertebrates including human genome. High levels of gene duplication of toxin genes makes the task of sequencing snake genomes tricky.

Prof Kini highlighted that while it is widely known that people die from snake bites — there are some 100,000 snake-related deaths per year worldwide — a lesser-known fact is that snake venom has contributed to the development of a number of drugs, such as Captopril for hypertension, as well as antiplatelet drugs Eptifibatide and Tirofiban. These, and other drugs which are developed based on snake venom toxins, save millions of human lives every year.

The Kini Lab at NUS conducts research on protein chemistry, as well as protein design and engineering, among other areas. To date, the laboratory has discovered and characterised more than 30 toxins and eight new toxin families. Prof Kini shared that the laboratory is currently developing several drugs for cardiovascular diseases.

Organised by Pacific Biosciences, the international competition aims to determine the world’s most interesting genome by a public vote. The team with the highest number of votes will be awarded genome sequencing of their chosen plant or animal.

What are your future plans?

“I am keen to continue working and gaining more research experience in the field of herpetology. With an international doctoral degree I hope to eventually be able to set up collaborations with my home country which is a treasure trove of reptilian biodiversity.”

To fund her studies Mrinalini has been working part-time as research technician the Christmas Island red-crab project with Prof. Simon Webster since 2007. Prior to that she was awarded the Chuck Hollingworth Memorial Prize for her MSc thesis in 2006.

About her time in Bangor, she said: “It has been quite challenging especially being away from family and friends, but I think I am quite happy with my achievements. ”