Why Scientists Love the Gila Monster

Jeff Servoss, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Jeff Servoss, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Jeff Servoss, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like Godzilla, Edward Cullen, and Elmo, Heloderma suspectumare is a monster with some seriously dedicated fans. The squat, grumpy-looking lizard more commonly known as the Gila monster makes its home in the punishing heat of the American southwest, and a handful of scientists are enamored with the species' special spit.

The Gila monster is one of two species of venomous lizards, and the aftermath of its slimy bite is reported to feel like burning lava. Decades ago, scientists wondered why the lizard had developed weaponized spit, and how it worked.

In picking apart the saliva’s chemical components, they found a number of pretty violent proteins, including one that attacks the pancreas. As someone who spent a lot of time thinking about pancreases and pancreas-related illness, endocrinologist John Eng was intrigued. By 1992 he had identified the protein, called exendin-4, and learned that it was amazingly similar to a human protein that helps regulate blood sugar levels. Thirteen years later, Eng and other researchers had found a way to make synthetic exendin-4—and to make it into medicine for people with diabetes. The final product, a drug called Byetta, was approved by the FDA in 2005.

“It really is a beautiful lizard,” Eng said of the monster in a 2007 interview with the website Diabetes In Control. “Like many other animal species it is under pressure from development and other environmental concerns. The question is, what other animal has something to teach us that can be of future value? And plants, too? We will never know their value if they are gone.”

Eng is not alone in his concern for the lizard’s well-being or his desire to uncover its secrets. Computational biologist Melissa Wilson Sayres is currently looking for backers who will help her lab study the lizard’s genetic information.

“People are typically afraid of this lizard, but it’s saving a huge number of people,” Sayres told Carrie Arnold at The Daily Beast. The lab needs $8665—mere pennies, as research dollars go—but Sayres and her team say it would be enough to allow them to sequence and analyze the Gila monster’s DNA. This information could, in turn, inform both conservation efforts and further medical research.

And all this from a reclusive, bitey reptile. Sayres herself is surprised by the passion she feels for H. suspectumare. “I never anticipated falling in love with a monster,” she said.