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.
On 9 June 2008, the UK’s largest mass stranding event (MSE) of short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) occurred in Falmouth Bay, Cornwall. At least 26 dolphins died, and a similar number was refloated/herded back to sea. On necropsy, all dolphins were in good nutritive status with empty stomachs and no evidence of known infectious disease or acute physical injury. Auditory tissues were grossly normal (26/26) but had microscopic haemorrhages (5/5) and mild otitis media (1/5) in the freshest cases. Five lactating adult dolphins, one immature male, and one immature female tested were free of harmful algal toxins and had low chemical pollutant levels. Pathological evidence of mud/seawater inhalation (11/26), local tide cycle, and the relative lack of renal myoglobinuria (26/26) suggested MSE onset on a rising tide between 06∶30 and 08∶21 hrs (9 June). Potential causes excluded or considered highly unlikely included infectious disease, gas/fat embolism, boat strike, by-catch, predator attack, foraging unusually close to shore, chemical or algal toxin exposure, abnormal weather/climatic conditions, and high-intensity acoustic inputs from seismic airgun arrays or natural sources (e.g., earthquakes). International naval exercises did occur in close proximity to the MSE with the most intense part of the exercises (including mid-frequency sonars) occurring four days before the MSE and resuming with helicopter exercises on the morning of the MSE. The MSE may therefore have been a “two-stage process” where a group of normally pelagic dolphins entered Falmouth Bay and, after 3-4 days in/around the Bay, a second acoustic/disturbance event occurred causing them to strand en masse. This spatial and temporal association with the MSE, previous associations between naval activities and cetacean MSEs, and an absence of other identifiable factors known to cause cetacean MSEs, indicates naval activity to be the most probable cause of the Falmouth Bay MSE.
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.
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.
Botulinum neurotoxins (BoNTs), etiological agents of the life threatening neuroparalytic disease botulism, are the most toxic substances currently known. The potential for the use as bioweapon makes the development of small-molecule inhibitor against these deadly toxins is a top priority. Currently, there are no approved pharmacological treatments for BoNT intoxication. Although an effective vaccine/immunotherapy is available for immuno-prophylaxis but this cannot reverse the effects of toxin inside neurons. A small-molecule pharmacological intervention, especially one that would be effective against the light chain protease, would be highly desirable. Similarity search was carried out from ChemBridge and NSC libraries to the hit (7-(phenyl(8-quinolinylamino)methyl)-8-quinolinol; NSC 84096) to mine its analogs. Several hits obtained were screened for in silico inhibition using AutoDock 4.1 and 19 new molecules selected based on binding energy and Ki. Among these, eleven quinolinol derivatives potently inhibited in vitro endopeptidase activity of botulinum neurotoxin type A light chain (rBoNT/A-LC) on synaptosomes isolated from rat brain which simulate the in vivo system. Five of these inhibitor molecules exhibited IC(50) values ranging from 3.0 nM to 10.0 µM. NSC 84087 is the most potent inhibitor reported so far, found to be a promising lead for therapeutic development, as it exhibits no toxicity, and is able to protect animals from pre and post challenge of botulinum neurotoxin type A (BoNT/A).
Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (ETEC) strains are the leading bacterial cause of diarrhea to humans and farm animals. These ETEC strains produce heat-labile toxin (LT) and/or heat-stable toxins that include type I (STa), type II (STb), and enteroaggregative heat-stable toxin 1 (EAST1). LT, STa, and STb (in pigs) are proven the virulence determinants in ETEC diarrhea. However, significance of EAST1 in ETEC-associated diarrheal has not been determined, even though EAST1 is highly prevalent among ETEC strains.
The nematocyst is a complex intracellular structure unique to Cnidaria. When triggered to discharge, the nematocyst explosively releases a long spiny, tubule that delivers an often highly venomous mixture of components. The box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri, produces exceptionally potent and rapid-acting venom and its stings to humans cause severe localized and systemic effects that are potentially life-threatening. In an effort to identify toxins that could be responsible for the serious health effects caused by C. fleckeri and related species, we used a proteomic approach to profile the protein components of C. fleckeri venom. Collectively, 61 proteins were identified, including toxins and proteins important for nematocyte development and nematocyst formation (nematogenesis). The most abundant toxins identified were isoforms of a taxonomically restricted family of potent cnidarian proteins. These toxins are associated with cytolytic, nociceptive, inflammatory, dermonecrotic and lethal properties and expansion of this important protein family goes some way to explaining the destructive and potentially fatal effects of C. fleckeri venom. Venom proteins and their post-translational modifications (PTMs) were further characterized using toxin-specific antibodies and phosphoprotein/glycoprotein-specific stains. Results indicated that glycosylation is a common PTM of the toxin family while a lack of cross-reactivity by toxin-specific antibodies infers there is significant divergence in structure and possibly function among family members. This study provides insight into the depth and diversity of protein toxins produced by harmful box jellyfish and represents the first description of a cubozoan jellyfish venom proteome.
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.
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.
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.