The 'Power of Poison' on view now at COSI

On a 2015 episode of Coyote Peterson’s online show Breaking Trail, the Columbus-based wildlife entertainer was bitten by a Gila monster, a poisonous lizard indigenous to the Southwest. Peterson writhed in pain. Apparently it burns—a lot. 

Poison equals pain: It’s a lesson hardwired into humans. But even the toxic venom of a Gila monster isn’t necessarily always bad. It’s all about dosage, says COSI CEO Frederic Bertley, and the exact same toxin that could kill you could also cure you. That paradox is at the heart of COSI’s The Power of Poison, the second of its traveling exhibits from the American Museum of Natural History.

One of the live animals on display is none other than the Gila monster, albeit behind glass so visitors don’t suffer the same fate as Peterson, who recently inked a deal to create a new Animal Planet show about his adventures. It turns out that the Gila’s painful poison is also capable of treating diabetes. In research on snake and lizard bites, doctors discovered that patients often suffered swollen pancreases, which regulate blood sugar.

Intrigued, endocrinologist Dr. John Eng then studied the components of Gila saliva and identified a protein that also regulates blood sugar. In 2005, the FDA approved the synthetic version of the protein for medical use. 

Bertley says pharmaceutical companies often scour the earth for toxins that can be flipped for therapeutic treatments. If you understand a compound’s biological function, he says, you can tweak it and possibly save the world. 

The Power of Poison runs through Jan. 13 in the special exhibition gallery at COSI, 333 W. Broad St., 614-228-2674, cosi.org.