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  1. Ontogenetic shifts in venom occur in many snakes but establishing their nature as gradual or discrete processes required additional study. We profiled shifts in venom expression from the neonate to adult sizes of two rattlesnake species, the eastern diamondback and the timber rattlesnake. We used serial sampling and venom chromatographic profiling to test if ontogenetic change occurs gradually or discretely. We found evidence for gradual shifts in overall venom composition in six of eight snakes, which sometimes spanned more than two years. Most chromatographic peaks shift gradually, but one quarter shift in a discrete fashion. Analysis of published diet data showed gradual shifts in overall diet composition across the range of body sizes attained by our eight study animals, while the shifts in abundance of different prey classes varied in form from gradual to discrete. Testosterone concentrations were correlated with the change in venom protein composition, but the relationship is not strong enough to suggest causation. Venom research employing simple juvenile versus adult size thresholds may be failing to account for continuous variation in venom composition lifespan. Our results imply that venom shifts represent adaptive matches to dietary shifts and highlight venom for studies of alternative gene regulatory mechanisms.
  2. Ontogenetic changes in venom composition have been described in Bothrops snakes, but only a few studies have attempted to identify the targeted paralogues or the molecular mechanisms involved in modifications of gene expression during ontogeny. In this study, we decoded B. jararacussu venom gland transcripts from six specimens of varying sizes and analyzed the variability in the composition of independent venom proteomes from 19 individuals. We identified 125 distinct putative toxin transcripts, and of these, 73 were detected in venom proteomes and only 10 were involved in the ontogenetic changes. Ontogenetic variability was linearly related to snake size and did not correspond to the maturation of the reproductive stage. Changes in the transcriptome were highly predictive of changes in the venom proteome. The basic myotoxic phospholipases A2 (PLA2s) were the most abundant components in larger snakes, while in venoms from smaller snakes, PIII-class SVMPs were the major components. The snake venom metalloproteinases (SVMPs) identified corresponded to novel sequences and conferred higher pro-coagulant and hemorrhagic functions to the venom of small snakes. The mechanisms modulating venom variability are predominantly related to transcriptional events and may consist of an advantage of higher hematotoxicity and more efficient predatory function in the venom frommore »small snakes.« less
  3. Variation in gene regulation is ubiquitous, yet identifying the mechanisms producing such variation, especially for complex traits, is challenging. Snake venoms provide a model system for studying the phenotypic impacts of regulatory variation in complex traits because of their genetic tractability. Here, we sequence the genome of the Tiger Rattlesnake, which possesses the simplest and most toxic venom of any rattlesnake species, to determine whether the simple venom phenotype is the result of a simple genotype through gene loss or a complex genotype mediated through regulatory mechanisms. We generate the most contiguous snake-genome assembly to date and use this genome to show that gene loss, chromatin accessibility, and methylation levels all contribute to the production of the simplest, most toxic rattlesnake venom. We provide the most complete characterization of the venom gene-regulatory network to date and identify key mechanisms mediating phenotypic variation across a polygenic regulatory network.

  4. The role of natural selection in the evolution of trait complexity can be characterized by testing hypothesized links between complex forms and their functions across species. Predatory venoms are composed of multiple proteins that collectively function to incapacitate prey. Venom complexity fluctuates over evolutionary timescales, with apparent increases and decreases in complexity, and yet the causes of this variation are unclear. We tested alternative hypotheses linking venom complexity and ecological sources of selection from diet in the largest clade of front-fanged venomous snakes in North America: the rattlesnakes, copperheads, cantils, and cottonmouths. We generated independent transcriptomic and proteomic measures of venom complexity and collated several natural history studies to quantify dietary variation. We then constructed genome-scale phylogenies for these snakes for comparative analyses. Strikingly, prey phylogenetic diversity was more strongly correlated to venom complexity than was overall prey species diversity, specifically implicating prey species’ divergence, rather than the number of lineages alone, in the evolution of complexity. Prey phylogenetic diversity further predicted transcriptomic complexity of three of the four largest gene families in viper venom, showing that complexity evolution is a concerted response among many independent gene families. We suggest that the phylogenetic diversity of prey measures functionally relevant divergencemore »in the targets of venom, a claim supported by sequence diversity in the coagulation cascade targets of venom. Our results support the general concept that the diversity of species in an ecological community is more important than their overall number in determining evolutionary patterns in predator trait complexity.

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  5. Abstract Motivation

    Next-generation sequencing has become exceedingly common and has transformed our ability to explore nonmodel systems. In particular, transcriptomics has facilitated the study of venom and evolution of toxins in venomous lineages; however, many challenges remain. Primarily, annotation of toxins in the transcriptome is a laborious and time-consuming task. Current annotation software often fails to predict the correct coding sequence and overestimates the number of toxins present in the transcriptome. Here, we present ToxCodAn, a python script designed to perform precise annotation of snake venom gland transcriptomes. We test ToxCodAn with a set of previously curated transcriptomes and compare the results to other annotators. In addition, we provide a guide for venom gland transcriptomics to facilitate future research and use Bothrops alternatus as a case study for ToxCodAn and our guide.

    Results

    Our analysis reveals that ToxCodAn provides precise annotation of toxins present in the transcriptome of venom glands of snakes. Comparison with other annotators demonstrates that ToxCodAn has better performance with regard to run time ($>20x$ faster), coding sequence prediction ($>3x$ more accurate) and the number of toxins predicted (generating $>4x$ less false positives). In this sense, ToxCodAn is a valuable resource for toxin annotation. The ToxCodAn framework can bemore »expanded in the future to work with other venomous lineages and detect novel toxins.

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