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  1. Abd El-Aty, A. M. (Ed.)
    Background Higher viral loads in SARS-CoV-2 infections may be linked to more rapid spread of emerging variants of concern (VOC). Rapid detection and isolation of cases with highest viral loads, even in pre- or asymptomatic individuals, is essential for the mitigation of community outbreaks. Methods and findings In this study, we analyze Ct values from 1297 SARS-CoV-2 positive patient saliva samples collected at the Clemson University testing lab in upstate South Carolina. Samples were identified as positive using RT-qPCR, and clade information was determined via whole genome sequencing at nearby commercial labs. We also obtained patient-reported information on symptoms and exposures at the time of testing. The lowest Ct values were observed among those infected with Delta (median: 22.61, IQR: 16.72–28.51), followed by Alpha (23.93, 18.36–28.49), Gamma (24.74, 18.84–30.64), and the more historic clade 20G (25.21, 20.50–29.916). There was a statistically significant difference in Ct value between Delta and all other clades (all p.adj<0.01), as well as between Alpha and 20G (p.adj<0.05). Additionally, pre- or asymptomatic patients (n = 1093) showed the same statistical differences between Delta and all other clades (all p.adj<0.01); however, symptomatic patients (n = 167) did not show any significant differences between clades. Our weekly testing strategy ensures that cases are caught earlier in the infection cycle, often before symptoms are present, reducing this sample size in our population. Conclusions COVID-19 variants Alpha and Delta have substantially higher viral loads in saliva compared to more historic clades. This trend is especially observed in individuals who are pre- or asymptomatic, which provides evidence supporting higher transmissibility and more rapid spread of emerging variants. Understanding the viral load of variants spreading within a community can inform public policy and clinical decision making. 
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  2. Yoder, Anne (Ed.)
    Abstract Understanding the joint roles of protein sequence variation and differential expression during adaptive evolution is a fundamental, yet largely unrealized goal of evolutionary biology. Here, we use phylogenetic path analysis to analyze a comprehensive venom-gland transcriptome dataset spanning three genera of pitvipers to identify the functional genetic basis of a key adaptation (venom complexity) linked to diet breadth (DB). The analysis of gene-family-specific patterns reveals that, for genes encoding two of the most important venom proteins (snake venom metalloproteases and snake venom serine proteases), there are direct, positive relationships between sequence diversity (SD), expression diversity (ED), and increased DB. Further analysis of gene-family diversification for these proteins showed no constraint on how individual lineages achieved toxin gene SD in terms of the patterns of paralog diversification. In contrast, another major venom protein family (PLA2s) showed no relationship between venom molecular diversity and DB. Additional analyses suggest that other molecular mechanisms—such as higher absolute levels of expression—are responsible for diet adaptation involving these venom proteins. Broadly, our findings argue that functional diversity generated through sequence and expression variations jointly determine adaptation in the key components of pitviper venoms, which mediate complex molecular interactions between the snakes and their prey. 
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  3. Traits for prey acquisition form the phenotypic interface of predator–prey interactions. In venomous predators, morphological variation in venom delivery apparatus like fangs and stingers may be optimized for dispatching prey. Here, we determine how a single dimension of venom injection systems evolves in response to variation in the size, climatic conditions and dietary ecology of viperid snakes. We measured fang length in more than 1900 museum specimens representing 199 viper species (55% of recognized species). We find both phylogenetic signal and within-clade variation in relative fang length across vipers suggesting both general taxonomic trends and potential adaptive divergence in fang length. We recover positive evolutionary allometry and little static allometry in fang length. Proportionally longer fangs have evolved in larger species, which may facilitate venom injection in more voluminous prey. Finally, we leverage climatic and diet data to assess the global correlates of fang length. We find that models of fang length evolution are improved through the inclusion of both temperature and diet, particularly the extent to which diets are mammal-heavy diets. These findings demonstrate how adaptive variation can emerge among components of complex prey capture systems. 
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  4. Qian, Wenfeng (Ed.)
    Abstract Despite the medical significance to humans and important ecological roles filled by vipers, few high-quality genomic resources exist for these snakes outside of a few genera of pitvipers. Here we sequence, assemble, and annotate the genome of Fea’s Viper (Azemiops feae). This taxon is distributed in East Asia and belongs to a monotypic subfamily, sister to the pitvipers. The newly sequenced genome resulted in a 1.56 Gb assembly, a contig N50 of 1.59 Mb, with 97.6% of the genome assembly in contigs >50 Kb, and a BUSCO completeness of 92.4%. We found that A. feae venom is primarily composed of phospholipase A2 (PLA2) proteins expressed by genes that likely arose from lineage-specific PLA2 gene duplications. Additionally, we show that renin, an enzyme associated with blood pressure regulation in mammals and known from the venoms of two viper species including A. feae, is expressed in the venom gland at comparative levels to known toxins and is present in the venom proteome. The cooption of this gene as a toxin may be more widespread in viperids than currently known. To investigate the historical population demographics of A. feae, we performed coalescent-based analyses and determined that the effective population size has remained stable over the last 100 kyr. This suggests Quaternary glacial cycles likely had minimal influence on the demographic history of A. feae. This newly assembled genome will be an important resource for studying the genomic basis of phenotypic evolution and understanding the diversification of venom toxin gene families. 
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  5. Abstract

    Beyond providing critical information to biologists, species distributions are useful for naturalists, curious citizens, and applied disciplines including conservation planning and medical intervention. Venomous snakes are one group that highlight the importance of having accurate information given their cosmopolitan distribution and medical significance. Envenomation by snakebite is considered a neglected tropical disease by the World Health Organization and venomous snake distributions are used to assess vulnerability to snakebite based on species occurrence and antivenom/healthcare accessibility. However, recent studies highlighted the need for updated fine-scale distributions of venomous snakes. Pitvipers (Viperidae: Crotalinae) are responsible for >98% of snakebites in the New World. Therefore, to begin to address the need for updated fine-scale distributions, we created VenomMaps, a database and web application containing updated distribution maps and species distribution models for all species of New World pitvipers. With these distributions, biologists can better understand the biogeography and conservation status of this group, researchers can better assess vulnerability to snakebite, and medical professionals can easily discern species found in their area.

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  6. null (Ed.)
    The venoms of small rear-fanged snakes (RFS) remain largely unexplored, despite increased recognition of their importance in understanding venom evolution more broadly. Sequencing the transcriptome of venom-producing glands has greatly increased the ability of researchers to examine and characterize the toxin repertoire of small taxa with low venom yields. Here, we use RNA-seq to characterize the Duvernoy’s gland transcriptome of the Plains Black-headed Snake, Tantilla nigriceps, a small, semi-fossorial colubrid that feeds on a variety of potentially dangerous arthropods including centipedes and spiders. We generated transcriptomes of six individuals from three localities in order to both characterize the toxin expression of this species for the first time, and to look for initial evidence of venom variation in the species. Three toxin families—three-finger neurotoxins (3FTxs), cysteine-rich secretory proteins (CRISPs), and snake venom metalloproteinases (SVMPIIIs)—dominated the transcriptome of T. nigriceps; 3FTx themselves were the dominant toxin family in most individuals, accounting for as much as 86.4% of an individual’s toxin expression. Variation in toxin expression between individuals was also noted, with two specimens exhibiting higher relative expression of c-type lectins than any other sample (8.7–11.9% compared to <1%), and another expressed CRISPs higher than any other toxin. This study provides the first Duvernoy’s gland transcriptomes of any species of Tantilla, and one of the few transcriptomic studies of RFS not predicated on a single individual. This initial characterization demonstrates the need for further study of toxin expression variation in this species, as well as the need for further exploration of small RFS venoms. 
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  7. null (Ed.)
  8. Abstract

    Male mating strategies respond to female availability such that variation in resources that affect spatial distribution can also alter cost–benefit tradeoffs within a population. In arid‐adapted species, rainfall alters reproduction, behavior, morphology, and population density such that populations differing in resource availability may also differ in successful reproductive strategies. Here, we compare two populations of Cape ground squirrels (Xerus inauris), a sub‐Saharan species with year‐round breeding and intense mating competition. Unlike most mammals where males resort to aggressive interactions over females, maleX. inaurisare tolerant of one another, relying instead on other nonaggressive pre‐ and postcopulatory strategies to determine reproductive success. Our findings suggest that differences in resource availability affect female distribution, which ultimately leads to intraspecific variation in male reproductive tactics and sexual morphology. Sperm competition, assessed by reproductive morphometrics, was more pronounced in our high resource site where females were distributed evenly across the landscape, whereas dominance seemed to be an important determinant of success in our low resource site where females were more aggregated. Both sites had similar mating intensities, and most males did not sire any offspring. However, our low resource site had a higher variance in fertilization success with fewer males siring multiple offspring compared with our high resource site where more individuals were successful. Our results lend support to resource models where variations in female spatial distribution attributed to environmental resources ultimately impact male reproductive behaviors and morphology.

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