Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Toxins


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


BACKGROUND: Understanding the processes that drive the evolution of snake venom is a topic of great research interest in molecular and evolutionary toxinology. Recent studies suggest that ontogenetic changes in venom composition are genetically controlled rather than environmentally induced. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying these changes remain elusive. Here we have explored the basis and level of regulation of the ontogenetic shift in the venom composition of the Central American rattlesnake, Crotalus s. simus using a combined proteomics and transcriptomics approach. RESULTS: Proteomic analysis showed that the ontogenetic shift in the venom composition of C. s. simus is essentially characterized by a gradual reduction in the expression of serine proteinases and PLA2 molecules, particularly crotoxin, a beta-neurotoxic heterodimeric PLA2, concominantly with an increment of PI and PIII metalloproteinases at age 9–18 months. Comparison of the transcriptional activity of the venom glands of neonate and adult C. s. simus specimens indicated that their transcriptomes exhibit indistinguisable toxin family profiles, suggesting that the elusive mechanism by which shared transcriptomes generate divergent venom phenotypes may operate post-transcriptionally. Specifically, miRNAs with frequency count of 1000 or greater exhibited an uneven distribution between the newborn and adult datasets. Of note, 590 copies of a miRNA targeting crotoxin B-subunit was exclusively found in the transcriptome of the adult snake, whereas 1185 copies of a miRNA complementary to a PIII-SVMP mRNA was uniquely present in the newborn dataset. These results support the view that age-dependent changes in the concentration of miRNA modulating the transition from a crotoxin-rich to a SVMP-rich venom from birth through adulhood can potentially explain what is observed in the proteomic analysis of the ontogenetic changes in the venom composition of C. s. simus. CONCLUSIONS: Existing snake venom toxins are the result of early recruitment events in the Toxicofera clade of reptiles by which ordinary genes were duplicated, and the new genes selectively expressed in the venom gland and amplified to multigene families with extensive neofunctionalization throughout the approximately 112–125 million years of ophidian evolution. Our findings support the view that understanding the phenotypic diversity of snake venoms requires a deep knowledge of the mechanisms regulating the transcriptional and translational activity of the venom gland. Our results suggest a functional role for miRNAs. The impact of specific miRNAs in the modulation of venom composition, and the integration of the mechanisms responsible for the generation of these miRNAs in the evolutionary landscape of the snake’s venom gland, are further challenges for future research.

Concepts: Gene, Gene expression, RNA, Venom, Snake, Toxins, Snake venom, Crotalus


Phospholipases A(2) (PLA(2)s) are abundant components of snake venoms, where they play toxic and digestive roles. Despite having a similar three-dimensional structure, venom PLA(2)s exert an amazing variety of toxic and pharmacological effects, which include neurotoxic, myotoxic, hemolytic, edematogenic, hyperalgesic, pro-inflammatory, hypotensive, platelet-aggregation inhibitory, anticoagulant, cytotoxic, and bactericidal activities. Toxinologists have made significant contributions to deciphering the structure, molecular evolution, mechanisms of action, receptors, role of enzymatic activity for toxicity, structural determinants of toxicity and selectivity, and the impact of these enzymes in the overall pathophysiology of snakebite envenoming. The present work highlights some of the most relevant contributions in the study of venom PLA(2)s, including the personal accounts of the authors of these studies.

Concepts: Signal transduction, Toxicology, Toxicity, Poison, Toxin, Venom, Toxins, Snake venom


BACKGROUND: Snake venoms have significant impacts on human populations through the morbidity and mortality associated with snakebites and as sources of drugs, drug leads, and physiological research tools. Genes expressed by venom-gland tissue, including those encoding toxic proteins, have therefore been sequenced but only with relatively sparse coverage resulting from the low-throughput sequencing approaches available. High-throughput approaches based on 454 pyrosequencing have recently been applied to the study of snake venoms to give the most complete characterizations to date of the genes expressed in active venom glands, but such approaches are costly and still provide a far-from-complete characterization of the genes expressed during venom production. RESULTS: We describe the de novo assembly and analysis of the venom-gland transcriptome of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) based on 95,643,958 pairs of quality-filtered, 100-base-pair Illumina reads. We identified 123 unique, full-length toxin-coding sequences, which cluster into 78 groups with less than 1% nucleotide divergence, and 2,879 unique, full-length nontoxin coding sequences. The toxin sequences accounted for 35.4% of the total reads, and the nontoxin sequences for an additional 27.5%. The most highly expressed toxin was a small myotoxin related to crotamine, which accounted for 5.9% of the total reads. Snake-venom metalloproteinases accounted for the highest percentage of reads mapping to a toxin class (24.4%), followed by C-type lectins (22.2%) and serine proteinases (20.0%). The most diverse toxin classes were the C-type lectins (21 clusters), the snake-venom metalloproteinases (16 clusters), and the serine proteinases (14 clusters). The high-abundance nontoxin transcripts were predominantly those involved in protein folding and translation, consistent with the protein-secretory function of the tissue. CONCLUSIONS: We have provided the most complete characterization of the genes expressed in an active snake venom gland to date, producing insights into snakebite pathology and guidance for snakebite treatment for the largest rattlesnake species and arguably the most dangerous snake native to the United States of America, C. adamanteus. We have more than doubled the number of sequenced toxins for this species and created extensive genomic resources for snakes based entirely on de novo assembly of Illumina sequence data.

Concepts: Snakebite, Toxin, Venom, Snake, Toxins, Crotalus adamanteus, Snake venom, Crotalus


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


Ca(v)2.2 is a calcium channel subtype localized at nerve terminals, including nociceptive fibers, where it initiates neurotransmitter release. Ca(v)2.2 is an important contributor to synaptic transmission in ascending pain pathways, and is up-regulated in the spinal cord in chronic pain states along with the auxiliary α2δ1 subunit. It is therefore not surprising that toxins that inhibit Ca(v)2.2 are analgesic. Venomous animals, such as cone snails, spiders, snakes, assassin bugs, centipedes and scorpions are rich sources of remarkably potent and selective Ca(v)2.2 inhibitors. However, side effects in humans currently limit their clinical use. Here we review Ca(v)2.2 inhibitors from venoms and their potential as drug leads.

Concepts: Pain, Toxin, Venom, Scorpion, Snake, Apitoxin, Toxins, Spider bite


Epsilon toxin (ETX) is produced by Clostridium perfringens type B and D strains and causes enterotoxemia, a highly lethal disease with major impacts on the farming of domestic ruminants, particularly sheep. ETX belongs to the aerolysin-like pore-forming toxin family. Although ETX has striking similarities to other toxins in this family, ETX is often more potent, with an LD50 of 100 ng/kg in mice. Due to this high potency, ETX is considered as a potential bioterrorism agent and has been classified as a category B biological agent by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the United States. The protoxin is converted to an active toxin through proteolytic cleavage performed by specific proteases. ETX is absorbed and acts locally in the intestines then subsequently binds to and causes lesions in other organs, including the kidneys, lungs and brain. The importance of this toxin for veterinary medicine and its possible use as a biological weapon have drawn the attention of researchers and have led to a large number of studies investigating ETX. The aim of the present work is to review the existing knowledge on ETX from C. perfringens type B and D.

Concepts: Medicine, Bacteria, Protease, Biological warfare, Toxin, Clostridium perfringens, Toxins, Biological agent


Fish venoms remain almost completely unstudied despite the large number of species. In part this is due to the inherent nature of fish venoms, in that they are highly sensitive to heat, pH, lyophilisation, storage and repeated freeze-thawing. They are also heavily contaminated with mucus, which makes proteomic study difficult. Here we describe a novel protein-handling protocol to remove mucus contamination, utilising ammonium sulfate and acetone precipitation. We validated this approach using barb venom gland tissue protein extract from the blue-spotted stingray Neotrygon kuhlii. We analysed the protein extract using 1D and 2D gels with LC-MS/MS sequencing. Protein annotation was underpinned by a venom gland transcriptome. The composition of our N. kuhlii venom sample revealed a variety of protein types that are completely novel to animal venom systems. Notably, none of the detected proteins exhibited similarity to the few toxin components previously characterised from fish venoms, including those found in other stingrays. Putative venom toxins identified here included cystatin, peroxiredoxin and galectin. Our study represents the first combined survey of gene and protein composition from the venom apparatus of any fish and our novel protein handling method will aid the future characterisation of toxins from other unstudied venomous fish lineages. BIOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE:

Concepts: Protein, Ammonia, Fish, Proteome, Toxin, Venom, Toxins, Lionfish


Snake venoms constitute a mixture of bioactive components that are involved not only in envenomation pathophysiology but also in the development of new drugs to treat many diseases. Different enzymatic and non-enzymatic proteins, such as phospholipases A2, hyaluronidases, L-amino acid oxidases, metalloproteinases, serine proteinases, lectins and disintegrins have been isolated and their functional and structural properties described in the literature. Many of these studies have also explored their medicinal potential focusing mainly on anticancer, antithrombotic and microbicide therapies. Bothrops pauloensis is a species found in Brazil, whose venom has been the focus of our studies in order to explore the biochemical and functional characteristics of their components. In this review, we have presented the main results of years of research on different toxins from B. pauloensis emphasizing their therapeutic potential. Studies concerning snake venom toxins to search for new therapeutic models open perspectives for new drug discovery.

Concepts: Protein, Pharmacology, Medicine, Phospholipase A2, Drug discovery, Toxin, Venom, Toxins


Snakes are fascinating creatures and have been residents of this planet well before ancient humans dwelled the earth. Venomous snakes have been a figure of fear, and cause notable mortality throughout the world. The venom constitutes families of proteins and peptides with various isoforms that make it a cocktail of diverse molecules. These biomolecules are responsible for the disturbance in fundamental physiological systems of the envenomed victim, leading to morbidity which can lead to death if left untreated. Researchers have turned these life-threatening toxins into life-saving therapeutics via technological advancements. Since the development of captopril, the first drug that was derived from bradykinin-potentiating peptide, to the disintegrins that have potent activity against certain types of cancers, snake venom components have shown great potential for the development of lead compounds for new drugs. There is a continuous development of new drugs from snake venom for coagulopathy and hemostasis to anti-cancer agents. In this review, we have focused on different snake venom proteins / peptides derived drugs that are in clinical use or in developmental stages till to date. Also, some commonly used snake venom derived diagnostic tools with the recent updates in this exciting field are presented.

Concepts: Protein, Peptide, Viperidae, Toxin, Venom, Snake, Snakes, Toxins