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  1. 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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  2. Free, publicly-accessible full text available January 1, 2023
  3. Ecologically divergent selection can lead to the evolution of reproductive isolation through the process of ecological speciation, but the balance of responsible evolutionary forces is often obscured by an inadequate assessment of demographic history and the genetics of traits under selection. Snake venoms have emerged as a system for studying the genetic basis of adaptation because of their genetic tractability and contributions to fitness, and speciation in venomous snakes can be associated with ecological diversification such as dietary shifts and corresponding venom changes. Here, we explored the neurotoxic (type A)–hemotoxic (type B) venom dichotomy and the potential for ecological speciation among Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) populations. Previous work identified the genetic basis of this phenotypic difference, enabling us to characterize the roles geography, history, ecology, selection, and chance play in determining when and why new species emerge or are absorbed. We identified significant genetic, proteomic, morphological, and ecological/environmental differences at smaller spatial scales, suggestive of incipient ecological speciation between type A and type B C. horridus. Range-wide analyses, however, rejected the reciprocal monophyly of venom type, indicative of varying intensities of introgression and a lack of reproductive isolation across the range. Given that we have now established the phenotypic distributionsmore »and ecological niche models of type A and B populations, genome-wide data are needed and capable of determining whether type A and type B C. horridus represent distinct, reproductively isolated lineages due to incipient ecological speciation or differentiated populations within a single species.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available November 1, 2022
  4. The voltage-gated sodium channel Nav1.8 is linked to neuropathic and inflammatory pain, highlighting the potential to serve as a drug target. However, the biophysical mechanisms that regulate Nav1.8 activation and inactivation gating are not completely understood. Progress has been hindered by a lack of biochemical tools for examining Nav1.8 gating mechanisms. Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus) venom proteins inhibit Nav1.8 and block pain in grasshopper mice (Onychomys torridus). These proteins provide tools for examining Nav1.8 structure–activity relationships. To identify proteins that inhibit Nav1.8 activity, venom samples were fractioned using liquid chromatography (reversed-phase and ion exchange). A recombinant Nav1.8 clone expressed in ND7/23 cells was used to identify subfractions that inhibited Nav1.8 Na+ current. Mass-spectrometry-based bottom-up proteomic analyses identified unique peptides from inhibitory subfractions. A search of the peptides against the AZ bark scorpion venom gland transcriptome revealed four novel proteins between 40 and 60% conserved with venom proteins from scorpions in four genera (Centruroides, Parabuthus, Androctonus, and Tityus). Ranging from 63 to 82 amino acids, each primary structure includes eight cysteines and a “CXCE” motif, where X = an aromatic residue (tryptophan, tyrosine, or phenylalanine). Electrophysiology data demonstrated that the inhibitory effects of bioactive subfractions can be removed by hyperpolarizingmore »the channels, suggesting that proteins may function as gating modifiers as opposed to pore blockers.« less
  5. 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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  6. The genus Calliophis is the most basal branch of the family Elapidae and several species in it have developed highly elongated venom glands. Recent research has shown that C. bivirgatus has evolved a seemingly unique toxin (calliotoxin) that produces spastic paralysis in their prey by acting on the voltage-gated sodium (NaV) channels. We assembled a transcriptome from C. bivirgatus to investigate the molecular characteristics of these toxins and the venom as a whole. We find strong confirmation that this genus produces the classic elapid eight-cysteine three-finger toxins, that δδ-elapitoxins (toxins that resemble calliotoxin) are responsible for a substantial portion of the venom composition, and that these toxins form a distinct clade within a larger, more diverse clade of C. bivirgatus three-finger toxins. This broader clade of C. bivirgatus toxins also contains the previously named maticotoxins and is somewhat closely related to cytotoxins from other elapids. However, the toxins from this clade that have been characterized are not themselves cytotoxic. No other toxins show clear relationships to toxins of known function from other species.
  7. 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.

  8. 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