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  1. 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.
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available April 1, 2023
  2. 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.

  3. 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 firstmore »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.« less
  4. Abstract The migration-selection balance often governs the evolution of lineages, and speciation with gene flow is now considered common across the tree of life. Ecological speciation is a process that can facilitate divergence despite gene flow due to strong selective pressures caused by ecological differences; however, the exact traits under selection are often unknown. The transition from freshwater to saltwater habitats provides strong selection targeting traits with osmoregulatory function. Several lineages of North American watersnakes (Nerodia spp.) are known to occur in saltwater habitat and represent a useful system for studying speciation by providing an opportunity to investigate gene flow and evaluate how species boundaries are maintained or degraded. We use double digest restriction-site associated DNA sequencing to characterize the migration-selection balance and test for evidence of ecological divergence within the Nerodia fasciata-clarkii complex in Florida. We find evidence of high intraspecific gene flow with a pattern of isolation-by-distance underlying subspecific lineages. However, we identify genetic structure indicative of reduced gene flow between inland and coastal lineages suggesting divergence due to isolation-by-environment. This pattern is consistent with observed environmental differences where the amount of admixture decreases with increased salinity. Furthermore, we identify significantly enriched terms related to osmoregulatory function amongmore »a set of candidate loci, including several genes that have been previously implicated in adaptation to salinity stress. Collectively, our results demonstrate that ecological differences, likely driven by salinity, cause strong divergent selection which promotes divergence in the N. fasciata-clarkii complex despite significant gene flow.« less
  5. True, John (Ed.)
    Abstract Novel phenotypes are commonly associated with gene duplications and neofunctionalization, less documented are the cases of phenotypic maintenance through the recruitment of novel genes. Proteolysis is the primary toxic character of many snake venoms, and ADAM metalloproteinases, named snake venom metalloproteinases (SVMPs), are largely recognized as the major effectors of this phenotype. However, by investigating original transcriptomes from 58 species of advanced snakes (Caenophidia) across their phylogeny, we discovered that a different enzyme, matrix metalloproteinase (MMP), is actually the dominant venom component in three tribes (Tachymenini, Xenodontini, and Conophiini) of rear-fanged snakes (Dipsadidae). Proteomic and functional analyses of these venoms further indicate that MMPs are likely playing an “SVMP-like” function in the proteolytic phenotype. A detailed look into the venom-specific sequences revealed a new highly expressed MMP subtype, named snake venom MMP (svMMP), which originated independently on at least three occasions from an endogenous MMP-9. We further show that by losing ancillary noncatalytic domains present in its ancestors, svMMPs followed an evolutionary path toward a simplified structure during their expansion in the genomes, thus paralleling what has been proposed for the evolution of their Viperidae counterparts, the SVMPs. Moreover, we inferred an inverse relationship between the expression of svMMPsmore »and SVMPs along the evolutionary history of Xenodontinae, pointing out that one type of enzyme may be substituting for the other, whereas the general (metallo)proteolytic phenotype is maintained. These results provide rare evidence on how relevant phenotypic traits can be optimized via natural selection on nonhomologous genes, yielding alternate biochemical components.« less
  6. 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.

  7. 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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  8. 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.


    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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