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Concept: Venom


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


Euchambersia mirabilis is an iconic species of Permo-Triassic therapsid because of its unusually large external maxillary fossa linked through a sulcus to a ridged canine. This anatomy led to the commonly accepted conclusion that the large fossa accommodated a venom gland. However, this hypothesis remains untested so far. Here, we conducted a μCT scan assisted reappraisal of the envenoming capacity of Euchambersia, with a special focus on the anatomy of the maxillary fossa and canines. This study shows that the fossa, presumably for the venom-producing gland, is directly linked to the maxillary canal, which carries the trigeminal nerve (responsible for the sensitivity of the face). The peculiar anatomy of the maxillary canal suggests important reorganisation in the somatosensory system and that a ganglion could possibly have been present in the maxillary fossa instead of a venom gland. Nevertheless, the venom gland hypothesis is still preferred since we describe, for the first time, the complete crown morphology of the incisiform teeth of Euchambersia, which strongly suggests that the complete dentition was ridged. Therefore Euchambersia manifests evidence of all characteristics of venomous animals: a venom gland (in the maxillary fossa), a mechanism to deliver the venom (the maxillary canal and/or the sulcus located ventrally to the fossa); and an apparatus with which to inflict a wound for venom delivery (the ridged dentition).

Concepts: Cranial nerves, Mandibular nerve, Venom, Trigeminal nerve, Maxillary nerve, Therapsida, Therocephalia


BACKGROUND: Vertebrate predators use a broad arsenal of behaviors and weaponry for overcoming fractious and potentially dangerous prey. A unique array of predatory strategies occur among snakes, ranging from mechanical modes of constriction and jaw-holding in non-venomous snakes, to a chemical means, venom, for quickly dispatching prey. However, even among venomous snakes, different prey handling strategies are utilized, varying from the strike-and-hold behaviors exhibited by highly toxic elapid snakes to the rapid strike-and-release envenomation seen in viperid snakes. For vipers, this mode of envenomation represents a minimal risk predatory strategy by permitting little contact with or retaliation from prey, but it adds the additional task of relocating envenomated prey which has wandered from the attack site. This task is further confounded by trails of other unstruck conspecific or heterospecific prey. Despite decades of behavioral study, researchers still do not know the molecular mechanism which allows for prey relocation. RESULTS: During behavioral discrimination trials (vomeronasal responsiveness) to euthanized mice injected with size-fractionated venom, Crotalus atrox responded significantly to only one protein peak. Assays for enzymes common in rattlesnake venoms, such as exonuclease, L-amino acid oxidase, metalloproteinase, thrombin-like and kallikrein-like serine proteases and phospholipase A2, showed that vomeronasal responsiveness was not dependent on enzymatic activity. Using mass spectrometry and N-terminal sequencing, we identified the proteins responsible for envenomated prey discrimination as the non-enzymatic disintegrins crotatroxin 1 and 2. Our results demonstrate a novel and critical biological role for venom disintegrins far beyond their well-established role in disruption of cell-cell and cell-extracellular matrix interactions. CONCLUSIONS: These findings reveal the evolutionary significance of free disintegrins in venoms as the molecular mechanism in vipers allowing for effective relocation of envenomated prey. The presence of free disintegrins in turn has led to evolution of a major behavioral adaptation (strike-and-release), characteristic of only rattlesnakes and other vipers, which exploits and refines the efficiency of a pre-existing chemical means of predation and a highly sensitive olfaction system. This system of a predator chemically tagging prey represents a novel trend in the coevolution of predator-prey relationships.

Concepts: Predation, Venom, Snake, Antivenom, Crotalus


Snake envenomation is a serious public health threat in the rural areas of Asian and African countries. To date, the only proven treatment for snake envenomation is antivenom therapy. Cross-neutralization of heterologous venoms by antivenom raised against venoms of closely related species has been reported. The present study examined the cross neutralizing potential of a newly developed polyvalent antivenom, termed Neuro Polyvalent Snake Antivenom (NPAV). NPAV was produced by immunization against 4 Thai elapid venoms.

Concepts: Africa, Squamata, Venom, Snake, Antivenom, Elapidae, King Cobra, Bungarus


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


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


Australia is the stronghold of the front-fanged venomous snake family Elapidae. The Australasian elapid snake radiation, which includes approximately 100 terrestrial species in Australia, as well as Melanesian species and all the world’s sea snakes, is less than 12 million years old. The incredible phenotypic and ecological diversity of the clade is matched by considerable diversity in venom composition. The clade’s evolutionary youth and dynamic evolution should make it of particular interest to toxinologists, however, the majority of species, which are small, typically inoffensive, and seldom encountered by non-herpetologists, have been almost completely neglected by researchers. The present study investigates the venom composition of 28 species proteomically, revealing several interesting trends in venom composition, and reports, for the first time in elapid snakes, the existence of an ontogenetic shift in the venom composition and activity of brown snakes (Pseudonaja sp.). Trends in venom composition are compared to the snakes' feeding ecology and the paper concludes with an extended discussion of the selection pressures shaping the evolution of snake venom.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Evolution, Ecology, Australia, Venom, Snake, Snakes, Elapidae


Snakes are limbless predators, and many species use venom to help overpower relatively large, agile prey. Snake venoms are complex protein mixtures encoded by several multilocus gene families that function synergistically to cause incapacitation. To examine venom evolution, we sequenced and interrogated the genome of a venomous snake, the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), and compared it, together with our unique transcriptome, microRNA, and proteome datasets from this species, with data from other vertebrates. In contrast to the platypus, the only other venomous vertebrate with a sequenced genome, we find that snake toxin genes evolve through several distinct co-option mechanisms and exhibit surprisingly variable levels of gene duplication and directional selection that correlate with their functional importance in prey capture. The enigmatic accessory venom gland shows a very different pattern of toxin gene expression from the main venom gland and seems to have recruited toxin-like lectin genes repeatedly for new nontoxic functions. In addition, tissue-specific microRNA analyses suggested the co-option of core genetic regulatory components of the venom secretory system from a pancreatic origin. Although the king cobra is limbless, we recovered coding sequences for all Hox genes involved in amniote limb development, with the exception of Hoxd12. Our results provide a unique view of the origin and evolution of snake venom and reveal multiple genome-level adaptive responses to natural selection in this complex biological weapon system. More generally, they provide insight into mechanisms of protein evolution under strong selection.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Evolution, Biology, Organism, Venom, Snake


Venom systems have evolved on multiple occasions across the animal kingdom, and they can act as key adaptations to protect animals from predators [1]. Consequently, venomous animals serve as models for a rich source of mimicry types, as non-venomous species benefit from reductions in predation risk by mimicking the coloration, body shape, and/or movement of toxic counterparts [2-5]. The frequent evolution of such deceitful imitations provides notable examples of phenotypic convergence and are often invoked as classic exemplars of evolution by natural selection. Here, we investigate the evolution of fangs, venom, and mimetic relationships in reef fishes from the tribe Nemophini (fangblennies). Comparative morphological analyses reveal that enlarged canine teeth (fangs) originated at the base of the Nemophini radiation and have enabled a micropredatory feeding strategy in non-venomous Plagiotremus spp. Subsequently, the evolution of deep anterior grooves and their coupling to venom secretory tissue provide Meiacanthus spp. with toxic venom that they effectively employ for defense. We find that fangblenny venom contains a number of toxic components that have been independently recruited into other animal venoms, some of which cause toxicity via interactions with opioid receptors, and result in a multifunctional biochemical phenotype that exerts potent hypotensive effects. The evolution of fangblenny venom has seemingly led to phenotypic convergence via the formation of a diverse array of mimetic relationships that provide protective (Batesian mimicry) and predatory (aggressive mimicry) benefits to other fishes [2, 6]. Our results further our understanding of how novel morphological and biochemical adaptations stimulate ecological interactions in the natural world.

Concepts: Natural selection, Evolution, Predation, Mimicry, Toxin, Adaptation, Venom, Batesian mimicry


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