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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 be expanded in the future to work with other venomous lineages and detect novel toxins.

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  2. Abstract

    An important goal of conservation genetics is to determine if the viability of small populations is reduced by a loss of adaptive variation due to genetic drift. Here, we assessed the impact of drift and selection on direct measures of adaptive variation (toxin loci encoding venom proteins) in the eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus), a threatened reptile that exists in small isolated populations. We estimated levels of individual polymorphism in 46 toxin loci and 1,467 control loci across 12 populations of this species, and compared the results with patterns of selection on the same loci following speciation ofS. catenatusand its closest relative, the western massasauga (S. tergeminus). Multiple lines of evidence suggest that both drift and selection have had observable impacts on standing adaptive variation. In support of drift effects, we found little evidence for selection on toxin variation within populations and a significant positive relationship between current levels of adaptive variation and long‐ and short‐term estimates of effective population size. However, we also observed levels of directional selection on toxin loci among populations that are broadly similar to patterns predicted from interspecific selection analyses that pre‐date the effects of recent drift, and that functional variation in these loci persists despite small short‐term effective sizes. This suggests that much of the adaptive variation present in populations may represent an example of “drift debt,” a nonequilibrium state where present‐day levels of variation overestimate the amount of functional genetic diversity present in future populations.

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  3. Abstract

    Changes in gene expression can rapidly influence adaptive traits in the early stages of lineage diversification. Venom is an adaptive trait comprised of numerous toxins used for prey capture and defense. Snake venoms can vary widely between conspecific populations, but the influence of lineage diversification on such compositional differences are unknown. To explore venom differentiation in the early stages of lineage diversification, we used RNA-seq and mass spectrometry to characterize Sidewinder Rattlesnake (Crotalus cerastes) venom. We generated the first venom-gland transcriptomes and complementary venom proteomes for eight individuals collected across the United States and tested for expression differences across life history traits and between subspecific, mitochondrial, and phylotranscriptomic hypotheses. Sidewinder venom was comprised primarily of hemorrhagic toxins, with few cases of differential expression attributable to life history or lineage hypotheses. However, phylotranscriptomic lineage comparisons more than doubled instances of significant expression differences compared to all other factors. Nevertheless, only 6.4% of toxins were differentially expressed overall, suggesting that shallow divergence has not led to major changes in Sidewinder venom composition. Our results demonstrate the need for consensus venom-gland transcriptomes based on multiple individuals and highlight the potential for discrepancies in differential expression between different phylogenetic hypotheses.

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  4. Abstract Background The explosive radiation and diversification of the advanced snakes (superfamily Colubroidea) was associated with changes in all aspects of the shared venom system. Morphological changes included the partitioning of the mixed ancestral glands into two discrete glands devoted for production of venom or mucous respectively, as well as changes in the location, size and structural elements of the venom-delivering teeth. Evidence also exists for homology among venom gland toxins expressed across the advanced snakes. However, despite the evolutionary novelty of snake venoms, in-depth toxin molecular evolutionary history reconstructions have been mostly limited to those types present in only two front-fanged snake families, Elapidae and Viperidae. To have a broader understanding of toxins shared among extant snakes, here we first sequenced the transcriptomes of eight taxonomically diverse rear-fanged species and four key viperid species and analysed major toxin types shared across the advanced snakes. Results Transcriptomes were constructed for the following families and species: Colubridae - Helicops leopardinus , Heterodon nasicus , Rhabdophis subminiatus ; Homalopsidae – Homalopsis buccata ; Lamprophiidae - Malpolon monspessulanus , Psammophis schokari , Psammophis subtaeniatus , Rhamphiophis oxyrhynchus ; and Viperidae – Bitis atropos , Pseudocerastes urarachnoides , Tropidolaeumus subannulatus , Vipera transcaucasiana . These sequences were combined with those from available databases of other species in order to facilitate a robust reconstruction of the molecular evolutionary history of the key toxin classes present in the venom of the last common ancestor of the advanced snakes, and thus present across the full diversity of colubroid snake venoms. In addition to differential rates of evolution in toxin classes between the snake lineages, these analyses revealed multiple instances of previously unknown instances of structural and functional convergences. Structural convergences included: the evolution of new cysteines to form heteromeric complexes, such as within kunitz peptides (the beta-bungarotoxin trait evolving on at least two occasions) and within SVMP enzymes (the P-IIId trait evolving on at least three occasions); and the C-terminal tail evolving on two separate occasions within the C-type natriuretic peptides, to create structural and functional analogues of the ANP/BNP tailed condition. Also shown was that the de novo evolution of new post-translationally liberated toxin families within the natriuretic peptide gene propeptide region occurred on at least five occasions, with novel functions ranging from induction of hypotension to post-synaptic neurotoxicity. Functional convergences included the following: multiple occasions of SVMP neofunctionalised in procoagulant venoms into activators of the clotting factors prothrombin and Factor X; multiple instances in procoagulant venoms where kunitz peptides were neofunctionalised into inhibitors of the clot destroying enzyme plasmin, thereby prolonging the half-life of the clots formed by the clotting activating enzymatic toxins; and multiple occasions of kunitz peptides neofunctionalised into neurotoxins acting on presynaptic targets, including twice just within Bungarus venoms. Conclusions We found novel convergences in both structural and functional evolution of snake toxins. These results provide a detailed roadmap for future work to elucidate predator–prey evolutionary arms races, ascertain differential clinical pathologies, as well as documenting rich biodiscovery resources for lead compounds in the drug design and discovery pipeline. 
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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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