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Concept: Spider bite


Black widow spiders (members of the genus Latrodectus) are widely feared because of their potent neurotoxic venom. α-Latrotoxin is the vertebrate-specific toxin responsible for the dramatic effects of black widow envenomation. The evolution of this toxin is enigmatic because only two α-latrotoxin sequences are known. In this study, ~4 kb α-latrotoxin sequences and their homologs were characterized from a diversity of Latrodectus species, and representatives of Steatoda and Parasteatoda, establishing the wide distribution of latrotoxins across the mega-diverse spider family Theridiidae. Across black widow species, α-latrotoxin shows ≥ 94% nucleotide identity and variability consistent with purifying selection. Multiple codon and branch-specific estimates of the nonsynonymous/ synonymous substitution rate ratio also suggest a long history of purifying selection has acted on α-latrotoxin across Latrodectus and Steatoda. However, α-latrotoxin is highly divergent in amino acid sequence between these genera, with 68.7% of protein differences involving non-conservative substitutions, evidence for positive selection on its physiochemical properties and particular codons, and an elevated rate of nonsynonymous substitutions along α-latrotoxin’s Latrodectus branch. Such variation likely explains the efficacy of red-back spider, L. hasselti, antivenom in treating bites from other Latrodectus species, and the weaker neurotoxic symptoms associated with Steatoda and Parasteatoda bites. Long-term purifying selection on α-latrotoxin indicates its functional importance in black widow venom, even though vertebrates are a small fraction of their diet. The greater differences between Latrodectus and Steatoda α-latrotoxin, and their relationships to invertebrate-specific latrotoxins, suggest a shift in α-latrotoxin towards increased vertebrate toxicity coincident with the evolution of widow spiders.

Concepts: Toxin, Spider, Spider bite, Black Widow, Latrodectus, Katipo, Black widow spider, Redback spider


Australian funnel-web spiders are generally considered the most dangerous spiders in the world, with envenomations from the Sydney funnel-web spider Atrax robustus resulting in at least 14 human fatalities prior to the introduction of an effective anti-venom in 1980. The clinical envenomation syndrome resulting from bites by Australian funnel-web spiders is due to a single 42-residue peptide known as δ-hexatoxin. This peptide delays the inactivation of voltage-gated sodium channels, which results in spontaneous repetitive firing and prolongation of action potentials, thereby causing massive neurotransmitter release from both somatic and autonomic nerve endings. Here we show that δ-hexatoxin from the Australian funnel-web spider Hadronyche versuta is produced from an intronless gene that encodes a prepropeptide that is post-translationally processed to yield the mature toxin. A limited sampling of genes encoding unrelated venom peptides from this spider indicated that they are all intronless. Thus, in distinct contrast to cone snails and scorpions, whose toxin genes contain introns, spiders may have developed a quite different genetic strategy for evolving their venom peptidome.

Concepts: Protein, Spider, Antivenom, Sydney funnel-web spider, Hexathelidae, Australian funnel-web spider, Spider bite, Venomous spiders


Manduca sexta (Ms) larvae are known to efficiently excrete ingested nicotine when feeding on their nicotine-producing native hostplant, Nicotiana attenuata. Here we describe how ingested nicotine is co-opted for larval defense by a unique mechanism. Plant-mediated RNAi was used to silence a midgut-expressed, nicotine-induced cytochrome P450 6B46 (CYP6B46) in larvae consuming transgenic N. attenuata plants producing MsCYP6B46 dsRNA. These and transgenic nicotine-deficient plants were planted into native habitats to study the phenotypes of larvae feeding on these plants and the behavior of their predators. The attack-behavior of a native wolf spider (Camptocosa parallela), a major nocturnal predator, provided the key to understanding MsCYP6B46’s function: spiders clearly preferred CYP6B46-silenced larvae, just as they had preferred larvae fed nicotine-deficient plants. MsCYP6B46 redirects a small amount (0.65%) of ingested nicotine from the midgut into hemolymph, from which nicotine is exhaled through the spiracles as an antispider signal. CYP6B46-silenced larvae were more susceptible to spider-attack because they exhaled less nicotine because of lower hemolymph nicotine concentrations. CYP6B46-silenced larvae were impaired in distributing ingested nicotine from midgut to hemolymph, but not in the clearing of hemolymph nicotine or in the exhalation of nicotine from hemolymph. MsCYP6B46 could be a component of a previously hypothesized pump that converts nicotine to a short-lived, transportable, metabolite. Other predators, big-eyed bugs, and antlion larvae were insensitive to this defense. Thus, chemical defenses, too toxic to sequester, can be repurposed for defensive functions through respiration as a form of defensive halitosis, and predators can assist the functional elucidation of herbivore genes.

Concepts: Insect, Predation, Cytochrome P450, Nicotiana, Herbivore, Spider, Defense, Spider bite


Centipedes are among the oldest extant venomous predators on the planet. Armed with a pair of modified, venom-bearing limbs, they are an important group of predatory arthropods and are infamous for their ability to deliver painful stings. Despite this, very little is known about centipede venom and its composition. Advances in analytical tools, however, have recently provided the first detailed insights into the composition and evolution of centipede venoms. This has revealed that centipede venom proteins are highly diverse, with 61 phylogenetically distinct venom protein and peptide families. A number of these have been convergently recruited into the venoms of other animals, providing valuable information on potential underlying causes of the occasionally serious complications arising from human centipede envenomations. However, the majority of venom protein and peptide families bear no resemblance to any characterised protein or peptide family, highlighting the novelty of centipede venoms. This review highlights recent discoveries and summarises the current state of knowledge on the fascinating venom system of centipedes.

Concepts: Protein, Protein structure, Centipede, Arthropod, Toxin, Venom, Scorpion, Spider bite


Many insect pests have developed resistance to existing chemical insecticides and consequently there is much interest in the development of new insecticidal compounds with novel modes of action. Although spiders have deployed insecticidal toxins in their venoms for over 250 million years, there is no evolutionary selection pressure on these toxins to possess oral activity since they are injected into prey and predators via a hypodermic needle-like fang. Thus, it has been assumed that spider-venom peptides are not orally active and are therefore unlikely to be useful insecticides. Contrary to this dogma, we show that it is possible to isolate spider-venom peptides with high levels of oral insecticidal activity by directly screening for per os toxicity. Using this approach, we isolated a 34-residue orally active insecticidal peptide (OAIP-1) from venom of the Australian tarantula Selenotypus plumipes. The oral LD50 for OAIP-1 in the agronomically important cotton bollworm Helicoverpa armigera was 104.2±0.6 pmol/g, which is the highest per os activity reported to date for an insecticidal venom peptide. OAIP-1 is equipotent with synthetic pyrethroids and it acts synergistically with neonicotinoid insecticides. The three-dimensional structure of OAIP-1 determined using NMR spectroscopy revealed that the three disulfide bonds form an inhibitor cystine knot motif; this structural motif provides the peptide with a high level of biological stability that probably contributes to its oral activity. OAIP-1 is likely to be synergized by the gut-lytic activity of the Bacillus thuringiensis Cry toxin (Bt) expressed in insect-resistant transgenic crops, and consequently it might be a good candidate for trait stacking with Bt.

Concepts: Protein, Toxin, Bacillus thuringiensis, Endotoxin, Spider, Venom, Helicoverpa armigera, Spider bite


Venomous animals have evolved with sophisticated bio-chemical strategies to arrest prey and defend themselves from natural predators. In recent years, peptide toxins from venomous animals have drawn considerable attention from researchers due to their surprising chemical, biochemical, and pharmacological diversity. Similar to other venomous animals, centipedes are one of the crucial venomous arthropods that have been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years in China. Despite signifying pharmacological importance, very little is known about the active components of centipede venoms. More than 500 peptide sequences have been reported in centipede venomous glands by transcriptome analysis, but only a small number of peptide toxins from centipede has been functionally described. Like other venomous animals such as snakes, scorpions, and spiders, the venom of centipedes could be an excellent source of peptides for developing drugs for treatments as well as bio-insecticides for agrochemical applications. Although centipede venoms are yet to be adequately studied, the venom of centipedes as well as their components described to date, should be compiled to help further research. Therefore, based on previous reports, this review focusses on findings and possible therapeutic applications of centipede venoms as well as their components.

Concepts: Fish, Arthropod, Toxin, Venom, Scorpion, Snake, Apitoxin, Spider bite


Female spiders are fine-tuned to detect and quickly respond to prey vibrations, presenting a challenge to courting males who must attract a female’s attention but not be mistaken for prey. This is likely particularly important at the onset of courtship when a male enters a female’s web. In web-dwelling spiders, little is known about how males solve this conundrum, or about their courtship signals. Here we used laser Doppler vibrometry to study the vibrations produced by males and prey (house flies and crickets) on tangle webs of the western black widow Latrodectus hesperus and on sheet webs of the hobo spider Tegenaria agrestis. We recorded the vibrations at the location typically occupied by a hunting female spider. We compared the vibrations produced by males and prey in terms of their waveform, dominant frequency, frequency bandwidth, amplitude and duration. We also played back recorded male and prey vibrations through the webs of female L. hesperus to determine the vibratory parameters that trigger a predatory response in females.

Concepts: Male, Female, Insect, Spider, Spider bite, Brown recluse spider, Hobo spider


Animal venoms have evolved many times. Venomous species are especially common in three of the four main groups of arthropods (Chelicerata, Myriapoda, Hexapoda), which together represent tens of thousands of species of venomous spiders, scorpions, centipedes and hymenopterans. Surprisingly, despite their great diversity of body plans there is no unambiguous evidence that any crustacean is venomous. We provide the first conclusive evidence that the aquatic, blind and cave-dwelling remipede crustaceans are venomous, and that venoms evolved in all four major arthropod groups. We produced a three-dimensional reconstruction of the venom delivery apparatus of the remipede Speleonectes tulumensis, showing that remipedes can inject venom in a controlled manner. A transcriptomic profile of its venom glands shows that they express a unique cocktail of transcripts coding for known venom toxins, including a diversity of enzymes and a probable paralytic neurotoxin very similar to one described from spider venom. We screened a transcriptomic library obtained from whole animals and identified a non-toxin paralogue of the remipede neurotoxin that is not expressed in the venom glands. This allowed us to reconstruct its probable evolutionary origin, and underlines the importance of incorporating data derived from non-venom gland tissue to elucidate the evolution of candidate venom proteins. This first glimpse into the venom of a crustacean and primitively aquatic arthropod reveals conspicuous differences from the venoms of other predatory arthropods such as centipedes, scorpions and spiders, and contributes valuable information for ultimately disentangling the many factors shaping the biology and evolution of venoms and venomous species.

Concepts: Insect, Arthropod, Toxin, Spider, Venom, Scorpion, Chelicerata, Spider bite


Here we show that the most venomous spiders in the world are phylogenetically misplaced. Australian atracine spiders (family Hexathelidae), including the notorious Sydney funnel-web spider Atrax robustus, produce venom peptides that can kill people. Intriguingly, eastern Australian mouse spiders (family Actinopodidae) are also medically dangerous, possessing venom peptides strikingly similar to Atrax hexatoxins. Based on the standing morphology-based classification, mouse spiders are hypothesized distant relatives of atracines, having diverged over 200 million years ago. Using sequence-capture phylogenomics, we instead show convincingly that hexathelids are non-monophyletic, and that atracines are sister to actinopodids. Three new mygalomorph lineages are elevated to the family level, and a revised circumscription of Hexathelidae is presented. Re-writing this phylogenetic story has major implications for how we study venom evolution in these spiders, and potentially genuine consequences for antivenom development and bite treatment research. More generally, our research provides a textbook example of the applied importance of modern phylogenomic research.

Concepts: Spider, Mygalomorphae, Antivenom, Sydney funnel-web spider, Hexathelidae, Australian funnel-web spider, Spider bite, Venomous spiders


The assassin bug venom system plays diverse roles in prey capture, defence and extra-oral digestion, but it is poorly characterised, partly due to its anatomical complexity. Here we demonstrate that this complexity results from numerous adaptations that enable assassin bugs to modulate the composition of their venom in a context-dependent manner. Gland reconstructions from multimodal imaging reveal three distinct venom gland lumens: the anterior main gland (AMG); posterior main gland (PMG); and accessory gland (AG). Transcriptomic and proteomic experiments demonstrate that the AMG and PMG produce and accumulate distinct sets of venom proteins and peptides. PMG venom, which can be elicited by electrostimulation, potently paralyses and kills prey insects. In contrast, AMG venom elicited by harassment does not paralyse prey insects, suggesting a defensive role. Our data suggest that assassin bugs produce offensive and defensive venoms in anatomically distinct glands, an evolutionary adaptation that, to our knowledge, has not been described for any other venomous animal.

Concepts: Evolution, Gland, Hemiptera, Toxin, Caterpillar, Venom, Scorpion, Spider bite