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Concept: Neurotoxin


Millions of years of evolution have fine-tuned the ability of venom peptides to rapidly incapacitate both prey and potential predators. Toxicofera reptiles are characterized by serous-secreting mandibular or maxillary glands with heightened levels of protein expression. These glands are the core anatomical components of the toxicoferan venom system, which exists in myriad points along an evolutionary continuum. Neofunctionalisation of toxins is facilitated by positive selection at functional hotspots on the ancestral protein and venom proteins have undergone dynamic diversification in helodermatid and varanid lizards as well as advanced snakes. A spectacular point on the venom system continuum is the long-glanded blue coral snake (Calliophis bivirgatus), a specialist feeder that preys on fast moving, venomous snakes which have both a high likelihood of prey escape but also represent significant danger to the predator itself. The maxillary venom glands of C. bivirgatus extend one quarter of the snake’s body length and nestle within the rib cavity. Despite the snake’s notoriety its venom has remained largely unstudied. Here we show that the venom uniquely produces spastic paralysis, in contrast to the flaccid paralysis typically produced by neurotoxic snake venoms. The toxin responsible, which we have called calliotoxin (δ-elapitoxin-Cb1a), is a three-finger toxin (3FTx). Calliotoxin shifts the voltage-dependence of NaV1.4 activation to more hyperpolarised potentials, inhibits inactivation, and produces large ramp currents, consistent with its profound effects on contractile force in an isolated skeletal muscle preparation. Voltage-gated sodium channels (NaV) are a particularly attractive pharmacological target as they are involved in almost all physiological processes including action potential generation and conduction. Accordingly, venom peptides that interfere with NaV function provide a key defensive and predatory advantage to a range of invertebrate venomous species including cone snails, scorpions, spiders, and anemones. Enhanced activation or delayed inactivation of sodium channels by toxins is associated with the extremely rapid onset of tetanic/excitatory paralysis in envenomed prey animals. A strong selection pressure exists for the evolution of such toxins where there is a high chance of prey escape. However, despite their prevalence in other venomous species, toxins causing delay of sodium channel inhibition have never previously been described in vertebrate venoms. Here we show that NaV modulators, convergent with those of invertebrates, have evolved in the venom of the long-glanded coral snake. Calliotoxin represents a functionally novel class of 3FTx and a structurally novel class of NaV toxins that will provide significant insights into the pharmacology and physiology of NaV. The toxin represents a remarkable case of functional convergence between invertebrate and vertebrate venom systems in response to similar selection pressures. These results underscore the dynamic evolution of the Toxicofera reptile system and reinforces the value of using evolution as a roadmap for biodiscovery.

Concepts: Protein, Natural selection, Predation, Toxin, Venom, Snake, Neurotoxin, Toxins


Domoic acid is a potent neurotoxin produced by certain marine microalgae that can accumulate in the foodweb, posing a health threat to human seafood consumers and wildlife in coastal regions worldwide. Evidence of climatic regulation of domoic acid in shellfish over the past 20 y in the Northern California Current regime is shown. The timing of elevated domoic acid is strongly related to warm phases of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Oceanic Niño Index, an indicator of El Niño events. Ocean conditions in the northeast Pacific that are associated with warm phases of these indices, including changes in prevailing currents and advection of anomalously warm water masses onto the continental shelf, are hypothesized to contribute to increases in this toxin. We present an applied domoic acid risk assessment model for the US West Coast based on combined climatic and local variables. Evidence of regional- to basin-scale controls on domoic acid has not previously been presented. Our findings have implications in coastal zones worldwide that are affected by this toxin and are particularly relevant given the increased frequency of anomalously warm ocean conditions.

Concepts: United States, Climate, Atlantic Ocean, California, Ocean, Oceanic climate, Marine debris, Neurotoxin


Although most eggs are intensely predated, the aerial egg clutches from the aquatic snail Pomacea canaliculata have only one reported predator due to unparalleled biochemical defenses. These include two storage-proteins: ovorubin that provides a conspicuous (presumably warning) coloration and has antinutritive and antidigestive properties, and PcPV2 a neurotoxin with lethal effect on rodents. We sequenced PcPV2 and studied whether it was able to withstand the gastrointestinal environment and reach circulation of a potential predator. Capacity to resist digestion was assayed using small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS), fluorescence spectroscopy and simulated gastrointestinal proteolysis. PcPV2 oligomer is antinutritive, withstanding proteinase digestion and displaying structural stability between pH 4.0-10.0. cDNA sequencing and protein domain search showed that its two subunits share homology with membrane attack complex/perforin (MACPF)-like toxins and tachylectin-like lectins, a previously unknown structure that resembles plant Type-2 ribosome-inactivating proteins and bacterial botulinum toxins. The protomer has therefore a novel AB toxin combination of a MACPF-like chain linked by disulfide bonds to a lectin-like chain, indicating a delivery system for the former. This was further supported by observing PcPV2 binding to glycocalix of enterocytes in vivo and in culture, and by its hemaggutinating, but not hemolytic activity, which suggested an interaction with surface oligosaccharides. PcPV2 is able to get into predator’s body as evidenced in rats and mice by the presence of circulating antibodies in response to sublethal oral doses. To our knowledge, a lectin-pore-forming toxin has not been reported before, providing the first evidence of a neurotoxic lectin in animals, and a novel function for ancient and widely distributed proteins. The acquisition of this unique neurotoxic/antinutritive/storage protein may confer the eggs a survival advantage, opening new perspectives in the study of the evolution of animal defensive strategies.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Protein structure, Bacteria, Predation, Toxin, Microbial toxins, Neurotoxin


Sharks have greater risk for bioaccumulation of marine toxins and mercury (Hg), because they are long-lived predators. Shark fins and cartilage also contain β-N-methylamino-l-alanine (BMAA), a ubiquitous cyanobacterial toxin linked to neurodegenerative diseases. Today, a significant number of shark species have found their way onto the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Many species of large sharks are threatened with extinction due in part to the growing high demand for shark fin soup and, to a lesser extent, for shark meat and cartilage products. Recent studies suggest that the consumption of shark parts may be a route to human exposure of marine toxins. Here, we investigated BMAA and Hg concentrations in fins and muscles sampled in ten species of sharks from the South Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. BMAA was detected in all shark species with only seven of the 55 samples analyzed testing below the limit of detection of the assay. Hg concentrations measured in fins and muscle samples from the 10 species ranged from 0.05 to 13.23 ng/mg. These analytical test results suggest restricting human consumption of shark meat and fins due to the high frequency and co-occurrence of two synergistic environmental neurotoxic compounds.

Concepts: Atlantic Ocean, Toxin, Shark, Neurotoxin, IUCN Red List, Sharks, Shark finning, Shark fin soup


Recent reports suggest that botulinum neurotoxin (BoNT) A, which is widely used clinically to inhibit neurotransmission, can spread within networks of neurons to have distal effects, but this remains controversial. Moreover, it is not known whether other members of this toxin family are transferred between neurons. Here, we investigate the potential distal effects of BoNT/A, BoNT/D, and tetanus toxin (TeNT), using central neurons grown in microfluidic devices. Toxins acted upon the neurons that mediated initial entry, but all three toxins were also taken up, via an alternative pathway, into non-acidified organelles that mediated retrograde transport to the somato-dendritic compartment. Toxins were then released into the media, where they entered and exerted their effects upon upstream neurons. These findings directly demonstrate that these agents undergo transcytosis and interneuronal transfer in an active form, resulting in long-distance effects.

Concepts: Action potential, Toxin, Botulinum toxin, Microbial toxins, Clostridium botulinum, Neurotoxins, Neurotoxin, Toxoid


Cross-neutralisation has been demonstrated for haemorrhagic venoms including Echis spp. and Cerastes spp. and for Australia elapid procoagulant toxins. A previous study showed that commercial tiger snake antivenom (TSAV) was able to neutralise the systemic effects of the Egyptian cobra, Naja haje, in vivo but it is unclear if this was true cross-neutralisation. The aim of the current study was to determine whether TSAV can neutralise the in vitro neurotoxic effects of N. haje venom. Both Notechis scutatus (10 μg/ml) and N. haje (10 μg/ml) venoms caused inhibition of indirect (supramaximal V, 0.1 Hz, 0.2 msec.) twitches of the chick biventer cervicis nerve-muscle preparation with t(90) values (i.e. the time to produce 90% inhibition of the original twitch height) of 26 ± 1 min. (n = 4) and 36 ± 4 min.; (n = 4). This effect at 10 μg/ml was significantly attenuated by the prior addition of TSAV (5 U/ml). A comparison of the reverse-phase HPLC profiles of both venoms showed some similarities with peak elution times, and SDS-PAGE analysis elucidated comparable bands across both venoms. Further analysis using Western immunoblotting indicated TSAV was able to detect N. haje venom, and enzyme immunoassay showed that in-house biotinylated polyclonal monovalent N. scutatus antibodies were able to detect N. haje venom. These findings demonstrate cross-neutralisation between different and geographically separated snakes supporting potential immunological similarities in snake toxin groups for a large range of snakes. This provides more evidence that antivenoms could be developed against specific toxin groups to cover a large range of snakes.

Concepts: Toxin, Venom, Snake, Antivenom, Neurotoxin, Elapidae, King Cobra, Tiger snake


Clostridium botulinum neurotoxin (BoNT) is a multidomain protein in which the individual modules work in synchronized cooperative action in order to enter into neurons and inhibit synaptic transmission. The di-chain protein is made up of the ~50 kD light chain and the ~100 kD heavy chain. The HC can be further subdivided into the N-terminal translocation domain (H(N)) and the C-terminal Receptor Binding Domain (H©). BoNT entry into neurons requires the toxin to utilize the host cell’s endocytosis pathway where it exploits the acidic environment of the endosome. Within the endosome the H© triggers the H(N) to change conformation from a soluble protein to a membrane inserted protein-conducting channel in precise timing with LC refolding. The LC must partially unfold to a translocation competent conformation in order to be translocated by the H(N) channel in an N to C terminal direction. Upon completion of translocation, the LC is released from the HC and allowed to interact with its substrate SNARE protein. This article discusses the individual functions of each module as well as the mechanisms by which each domain serves as a chaperone for the others, working in concert to achieve productive intoxication.

Concepts: Protein, Protein structure, Protein folding, Receptor, Botulinum toxin, Microbial toxins, Clostridium botulinum, Neurotoxin


Blue-ringed octopuses (genus Hapalochlaena) possess the potent neurotoxin tetrodotoxin (TTX). We examined the microdistribution of TTX in ten tissues of Hapalochlaena lunulata and Hapalochlaena fasciata by immunolabeling for fluorescent light microscopy (FLM). We visualized TTX throughout the posterior salivary gland, but the toxin was concentrated in cells lining the secretory tubules within the gland. Tetrodotoxin was present just beneath the epidermis of the integument (mantle and arms) and also concentrated in channels running through the dermis. This was suggestive of a TTX transport mechanism in the blood of the octopus, which would also explain the presence of the toxin in the blood-rich brachial hearts, gills, nephridia, and highly vascularized Needham’s sac (testes contents). We also present the first report of TTX in any cephalopod outside of the genus Hapalochlaena. A specimen of Octopus bocki from French Polynesia contained a small amount of TTX in the digestive gland.

Concepts: Glands, Tetrodotoxin, Neurotoxin, Cephalopod, Blue-ringed octopus, Octopus, Octopodidae, Greater Blue-ringed Octopus


Background. Clostridium botulinum strain IBCA10-7060, isolated from a patient with infant botulism, produced botulinum neurotoxin type B (BoNT/B) and another BoNT that, by use of the standard mouse bioassay, could not be neutralized by any of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-provided monovalent polyclonal botulinum antitoxins raised against BoNT types A-G.Methods and Results. The combining of antitoxins to neutralize the toxicity of known bivalent C. botulinum strains Ab, Ba, Af, and Bf also failed to neutralize the second BoNT. Analysis of culture filtrate by double immunodiffusion yielded a single line of immunoprecipitate with anti-A, anti-B, and anti-F botulinum antitoxins but not with anti-E antitoxin. A heptavalent F(ab')2 botulinum antitoxin A-G obtained from the US Army also did not neutralize the second BoNT. An antitoxin raised against IBCA10-7060 toxoid protected mice against BoNT/B (Okra) and against the second BoNT but did not protect mice against BoNT/A (Hall) or BoNT/F (Langeland).Conclusions. The second BoNT thus fulfilled classic criteria for being designated BoNT/H. IBCA10-7060 is the first C. botulinum type Bh strain to be identified. BoNT/H is the first new botulinum toxin type to be recognized in >40 years, and its recognition could not have been accomplished without the availability of the mouse bioassay.

Concepts: Honey, Botulinum toxin, Microbial toxins, Clostridium botulinum, Botulism, Neurotoxin, Castleberry's Food Company, Passive immunity


Clostridium botulinum neurotoxin (BoNT) is released as a progenitor complex, in association with a non-toxic-non-hemagglutinin protein (NTNH) and other associated proteins. We have determined the crystal structure of M type Progenitor complex of botulinum neurotoxin E [PTC-E(M)], a heterodimer of BoNT and NTNH. The crystal structure reveals that the complex exists as a tight, interlocked heterodimer of BoNT and NTNH. The crystal structure explains the mechanism of molecular assembly of the complex and reveals several acidic clusters at the interface responsible for association at low acidic pH and disassociation at basic/neutral pH. The similarity of the general architecture between the PTC-E(M) and the previously determined PTC-A(M) strongly suggests that the progenitor M complexes of all botulinum serotypes may have similar molecular arrangement, although the neurotoxins apparently can take very different conformation when they are released from the M complex.

Concepts: Acid, Toxin, Botulinum toxin, Microbial toxins, Clostridium botulinum, Neurotoxins, Botulism, Neurotoxin