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Concept: Conus


CCone snails produce highly complex venom comprising mostly small biologically active peptides known as conotoxins or conopeptides. Early estimates that suggested 50-200 venom peptides are produced per species have been recently increased at least 10-fold using advanced mass spectrometry. To uncover the mechanism(s) responsible for generating this impressive diversity, we used an integrated approach combining second-generation transcriptome sequencing with high sensitivity proteomics. From the venom gland transcriptome of Conus marmoreus, a total of 105 conopeptide precursor sequences from 13 gene superfamilies were identified. Over 60% of these precursors belonged to the three gene superfamilies O1, T and M, consistent with their high levels of expression, which suggests these conotoxins play an important role in prey capture and/or defense. Seven gene superfamilies not previously identified in C. marmoreus, including 5 novel superfamilies, were also discovered. To confirm the expression of toxins identified at the transcript level, the injected venom of C. marmoreus was comprehensively analyzed by mass spectrometry, revealing 2710 and 3172 peptides using MALDI and ESI-MS, respectively, and 6254 peptides using an ESI-MS TripleTOF 5600 instrument. All conopeptides derived from transcriptomic sequences could be matched to masses obtained on the TripleTOF within 100 ppm accuracy, with 66 (63%) providing MS/MS coverage that unambiguously confirmed these matches. Comprehensive integration of transcriptomic and proteomic data revealed for the first time that the vast majority of the conopeptide diversity arises from a more limited set of genes through a process of variable peptide processing, which generates conopeptides with alternative cleavage sites, heterogeneous post-translational modifications, and highly variable N- and C-terminal truncations. Variable peptide processing is expected to contribute to the evolution of venoms, and explains how a limited set of ~100 gene transcripts can generate thousands of conopeptides in a single species of cone snail.

Concepts: Protein, Gene, Gene expression, Amino acid, Mass spectrometry, Species, Conus, Conidae


The venom of predatory marine cone snails mainly contains a diverse array of unique bioactive peptides commonly referred to as conopeptides or conotoxins. These peptides have proven to be valuable pharmacological probes and potential drugs because of their high specificity and affinity to important ion channels, receptors and transporters of the nervous system. Most previous studies have focused specifically on the conopeptides from piscivorous and molluscivorous cone snails, but little attention has been devoted to the dominant vermivorous species.

Concepts: Central nervous system, Nervous system, Ion channel, Neuroscience, Conotoxin, Conus, Conidae, Radula


Although diet is believed to be a major factor underlying the evolution of venom, few comparative studies examine both venom composition and diet across a radiation of venomous species. Cone snails within the family, Conidae, comprise more than 700 species of carnivorous marine snails that capture their prey by using a cocktail of venomous neurotoxins (conotoxins or conopeptides). Venom composition across species has been previously hypothesized to be shaped by (a) prey taxonomic class (i.e., worms, molluscs, or fish) and (b) dietary breadth. We tested these hypotheses under a comparative phylogenetic framework using ecological data from past studies in conjunction with venom duct transcriptomes sequenced from 12 phylogenetically disparate cone snail species, including 10 vermivores (worm-eating), one molluscivore, and one generalist.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Snail, Gastropoda, Conus, Conidae, Radula, Conoidea


During evolution, nature has embraced different strategies for species to survive. One strategy, applied by predators as diverse as snakes, scorpions, sea anemones and cone snails, is using venom to immobilize or kill a prey. This venom offers a unique and extensive source of chemical diversity as it is driven by the evolutionary pressure to improve prey capture and/or to protect their species. Cone snail venom is an example of the remarkable diversity in pharmacologically active small peptides that venoms can consist of. These venom peptides, called conopeptides, are classified into two main groups based on the number of cysteine residues, namely disulfide-rich and disulfide-poor conopeptides. Since disulfide-poor conotoxins are minor components of this venom cocktail, the number of identified peptides and the characterization of these peptides is far outclassed by its cysteine-rich equivalents. This review provides an overview of 12 families of disulfide-poor peptides identified to date as well as the state of affairs.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Venom, Scorpion, Conus, Conidae, Radula, Conoidea


Cone snails are predatory creatures using venom as a weapon for prey capture and defense. Since this venom is neurotoxic, the venom gland is considered as an enormous collection of pharmacologically interesting compounds having a broad spectrum of targets. As such, cone snail peptides represent an interesting treasure for drug development. Here, we report five novel peptides isolated from the venom of Conus longurionis, Conus asiaticus and Conus australis. Lo6/7a and Lo6/7b were retrieved from C. longurionis and have a cysteine framework VI/VII. Lo6/7b has an exceptional amino acid sequence because no similar conopeptide has been described to date (similarity percentage <50%). A third peptide, Asi3a from C. asiaticus, has a typical framework III Cys arrangement, classifying the peptide in the M-superfamily. Asi14a, another peptide of C. asiaticus, belongs to framework XIV peptides and has a unique amino acid sequence. Finally, AusB is a novel conopeptide from C. australis. The peptide has only one disulfide bond, but is structurally very different as compared to other disulfide-poor peptides. The peptides were screened on nAChRs, NaV and KV channels depending on their cysteine framework and proposed classification. No targets could be attributed to the peptides, pointing to novel functionalities. Moreover, in the quest of identifying novel pharmacological targets, the peptides were tested for antagonistic activity against a broad panel of Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria, as well as two yeast strains.

Concepts: Protein, Protein structure, Amino acid, Disulfide bond, Glutathione, Cysteine, Conus, Conidae


The biology of modern Conidae (cone snails)-which includes the hyperdiverse genus Conus-has been intensively studied, but the fossil record of the clade remains poorly understood, particularly within an evolutionary framework. Here, ultraviolet light is used to reveal and characterize the original shell coloration patterns of 28 species of cone snails from three Neogene coral reef-associated deposits from the Cibao Valley, northern Dominican Republic. These fossils come from the upper Miocene Cercado Fm. and lower Pliocene Gurabo Fm., and range in age from about 6.6-4.8 Ma. Comparison of the revealed coloration patterns with those of extant species allow the taxa to be assigned to three genera of cone snails (Profundiconus, Conasprella, and Conus) and at least nine subgenera. Thirteen members of these phylogenetically diverse reef faunas are described as new species. These include: Profundiconus? hennigi, Conasprella (Ximeniconus) ageri, Conus anningae, Conus lyelli, Conus (Atlanticonus?) franklinae, Conus (Stephanoconus) gouldi, Conus (Stephanoconus) bellacoensis, Conus (Ductoconus) cashi, Conus (Dauciconus) garrisoni, Conus (Dauciconus?) zambaensis, Conus (Spuriconus?) kaesleri, Conus (Spuriconus?) lombardii, and Conus (Lautoconus?) carlottae. Each of the three reef deposits contain a minimum of 14-16 cone snail species, levels of diversity that are similar to modern Indo-Pacific reef systems. Finally, most of the 28 species can be assigned to modern clades and thus have important implications for understanding the biogeographic and temporal histories of these clades in tropical America.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Phylogenetics, Fossil, Conus, Conidae, Dominican Republic, Radula


The glycopeptide CcTx, isolated from the venom of the piscivorous cone snail Conus consors, belongs to the κA-family of conopeptides. These toxins elicit excitotoxic responses in the prey by acting on voltage-gated sodium channels. The structure of CcTx, a first in the κA-family, has been determined by high-resolution NMR spectroscopy together with the analysis of its O-glycan at Ser7. A new type of glycopeptide O-glycan core structure, here registered as core type 9, containing two terminal L-galactose units {α-L-Galp-(1→4)-α-D-GlcpNAc-(1→6)-[α-L-Galp-(1→2)-β-D-Galp-(1→3)-]α-D-GalpNAc-(1→O)}, is highlighted. A sequence comparison to other putative members of the κA-family suggests that O-linked glycosylation might be more common than previously thought. This observation alone underlines the requirement for more careful and in-depth investigations into this type of post-translational modification in conotoxins.

Concepts: Posttranslational modification, Sodium channel, Lysine, Conotoxin, Glycation, Threonine, Conus, Conidae


Conus geographus is the most dangerous cone snail species known, with reported human fatality rates as high as 65%. Crude venom gland extracts have been used to determine animal LD50 and to aid the isolation of several potent paralytic toxins. However, not only is the composition of injected venoms known to differ significantly from that in dissected venom glands, but also to vary according to predatory or defensive stimuli. Therefore, to study the venom that is directly relevant to human envenomation, the defense-evoked venom of several specimens of C. geographus was collected and analyzed by standard LC-MS methods. The molecular composition of individual defense-evoked venom showed significant intraspecific variations, but a core of paralytic conotoxins including α-GI, α-GII, μ-GIIIA, ω-GVIA and ω-GVIIA was always present in large amounts, consistent with the symptomology and high fatality rate in humans. Differences between injected and dissected venoms obtained from the same specimen were also evident. Interestingly, an apparent linear correlation between the dry weight/volume of injected venom and the size of the shell allowed extrapolation to a human lethal dose (0.038 to 0.029 mg/kg) from an historic fatal case of C. geographus envenomation, which may help in the management of future victims.

Concepts: Toxicology, Conotoxin, Toxin, Venom, Conus, Conidae, Toxins, Conus geographus


Marine cone snail venoms consist of large, naturally occurring combinatorial libraries of disulfide-constrained peptide neurotoxins known as conotoxins, which have profound potential in the development of analgesics. In this study, we report a synthetic combinatorial strategy that probes the hypervariable regions of conotoxin frameworks to discover novel analgesic agents by utilizing high diversity mixture-based positional-scanning synthetic combinatorial libraries (PS-SCLs). We hypothesized that the direct in vivo testing of these mixture-based combinatorial library samples during the discovery phase would facilitate the identification of novel individual compounds with desirable antinociceptive profiles while simultaneously eliminating many compounds with poor activity or liabilities of locomotion and respiration. A PS-SCL was designed based on the α-conotoxin RgIA-R n-loop region and consisted of 10,648 compounds systematically arranged into 66 mixture samples. Mixtures were directly screened in vivo using the mouse 55°C warm-water tail-withdrawal assay, which allowed deconvolution of amino acid residues at each position that confer antinociceptive activity. A second generation library of 36 individual α-conotoxin analogs was synthesized using systematic combinations of amino acids identified from PS-SCL deconvolution and further screened for antinociceptive activity. Six individual analogs exhibited comparable antinociceptive activity to the recognized analgesic α-conotoxin RgIA-R, and were selected for further examination of antinociceptive, respiratory and locomotor effects. Three lead compounds were identified that produced dose-dependent antinociception without significant respiratory depression or decreased locomotor activity. Our results represent a unique approach for rapidly developing novel lead α-conotoxin analogs as low-liability analgesics with promising therapeutic potential.

Concepts: Protein, Amino acid, Acid, Amine, In vivo, Morphine, Analgesic, Conus


Some venomous cone snails feed on small fishes using an immobilizing combination of synergistic venom peptides that target Kv and Nav channels. As part of this envenomation strategy, δ-conotoxins are potent ichtyotoxins that enhance Nav channel function. δ-Conotoxins belong to an ancient and widely distributed gene superfamily, but any evolutionary link from ancestral worm-eating cone snails to modern piscivorous species has not been elucidated. Here, we report the discovery of SuVIA, a potent vertebrate-active δ-conotoxin characterized from a vermivorous cone snail (Conus suturatus). SuVIA is equipotent at hNaV1.3, hNaV1.4 and hNaV1.6 with EC50s in the low nanomolar range. SuVIA also increased peak hNaV1.7 current by approximately 75% and shifted the voltage-dependence of activation to more hyperpolarized potentials from -15 mV to -25 mV, with little effect on the voltage-dependence of inactivation. Interestingly, the proximal venom gland expression and pain-inducing effect of SuVIA in mammals suggest that δ-conotoxins in vermivorous cone snails play a defensive role against higher order vertebrates. We propose that δ-conotoxins originally evolved in ancestral vermivorous cones to defend against larger predators including fishes have been repurposed to facilitate a shift to piscivorous behaviour, suggesting an unexpected underlying mechanism for this remarkable evolutionary transition.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Carnivore, Conus, Conidae, Defense, Radula, Conoidea