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Logo of jbcThe Journal of Biological Chemistry
J Biol Chem. 2012 June 29; 287(27): 23020–23023.
PMCID: PMC3391119

From DNA Enzymes to Cone Snail Venom: The Work of Baldomero M. Olivera


Processivity of DNA Exonucleases (Thomas, K. R., and Olivera, B. M. (1978) J. Biol. Chem. 253, 424–429)

Neuronal Calcium Channel Inhibitors. Synthesis of ω-Conotoxin GVIA and Effects on 45Ca Uptake by Synaptosomes (Rivier, J., Galyean, R., Gray, W. R., Azimi-Zonooz, A., McIntosh, J. M., Cruz, L. J., and Olivera, B. M. (1987) J. Biol. Chem. 262, 1194–1198)

The two papers being recognized here as JBC Classics speak to the journeys Baldomero “Toto” Olivera at the University of Utah has made in his life. A director of a program project funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and a professor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Olivera's papers highlight how doing research in two different countries ultimately influenced his focus and contributions to molecular biology and biochemistry.

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Baldomero “Toto” Olivera. Photo courtesy of Olivera.

Olivera began his career as a DNA biophysical chemist and enzymologist. He arrived in the United States in the 1960s to do his graduate work at the California Institute of Technology after completing a bachelor's degree in chemistry in the Philippines. He joined the laboratory of Norman Davidson to study the biophysical chemistry of DNA. When Olivera was ready to graduate with his Ph.D. degree, Davidson suggested that Olivera go to I. Robert Lehman's laboratory at Stanford University for his postdoctoral training. “He knew it was my intention to return to the Philippines,” recalls Olivera. Davidson felt it would be easier for Olivera to study DNA enzymology, rather than biophysical chemistry, in a Philippine academic setting because the field did not necessarily demand expensive and sophisticated instrumentation.

Olivera followed his thesis advisor's suggestion and, as a result, became an expert in DNA enzymology, including exonucleases, a large class of DNA-degrading enzymes. The first JBC paper recognized here as a Classic was published in 1978 as Olivera was starting out as an independent researcher. In it, Olivera and his first graduate student, Kirk Thomas, investigated whether or not exonuclease I, first discovered in Escherichia coli by Lehman, and other exonucleases of E. coli were processive. This was at a time when little was known about nucleic acid enzymes: restriction enzymes were just starting to gain traction, and genome sequencing was far from reality. Olivera explains that no one had given much thought to how exonucleases functioned. “The significance of this paper was that it showed that the enzymes that we examined were very different using a new parameter processivity that had never been assessed for exonucleases,” he says.

Olivera and Thomas designed an assay that was based on a synthetic nucleic acid chain that contained 3H on one end and 32P on the other. Researchers knew that exonucleases selected either the 5′- or 3′-end of the DNA to start chewing. The rationale of the Thomas and Olivera assay was that if the enzyme dissociated after every single catalytic event, one label, either the 3H or 32P, would come off the polymer. However, if the enzyme clung to the polymer and kept chewing until the whole polymer was degraded, both radioactive labels would appear simultaneously in solution.

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Olivera with his first graduate student, Kirk Thomas. Photo courtesy of Olivera.

Thomas and Olivera demonstrated that of the eight exonucleases they tested, only the E. coli exonuclease I and λ-exonuclease were processive, meaning that once they got started, they kept on cutting the same piece of DNA before dissociating. The others, such as the spleen and T7 exonucleases, were not processive and frequently came off the DNA.

Lehman explains that at the time of this JBC paper, “methods had not yet been developed to measure quantitatively the processivity of either a DNA polymerase or a DNA exonuclease. Their paper made an important contribution to the field of DNA enzymology by describing for the first time a quantitative method for doing so and applied it to eight different DNA exonucleases, an enzymological tour de force.”

The second paper highlighted as a JBC Classic was published ten years later and shows a shift in Olivera's career. The article concerns the synthesis of a peptide found in the venom of the cone snail Conus geographus, which is indigenous to the Indo-Pacific region. All 700 types of cone snails have a special tooth that they use like a harpoon. A venom gland attached to the tooth releases the poisonous peptides to paralyze or even kill prey. These snails have to be handled with great care or not handled at all. Some can sting and cause pain like bees, but C. geographus can kill humans when it stings.

There is no scientific connection between DNA enzymes and snail venom. Olivera explains that when he had returned to the Philippines as an assistant professor in the College of Medicine at the University of the Philippines, his laboratory “had absolutely no equipment. It was clear I wasn't going to be very competitive in DNA replication [research], so we decided we'd find a project that we could start without any equipment. I collected shells as a kid, so I knew about this particular snail that killed people. I had purified enzymes as a post-doc and figured I could purify toxins by injecting them into mice, which didn't require any equipment at all.”

Olivera's group was soon isolating and characterizing peptides from the cone snail venom. The peptides are known as conotoxins. In doing so, Olivera established the field of conotoxin research, which had a significant impact on fundamental research and medicine. For example, a peptide isolated by Olivera's group has been approved as a drug for severe pain that cannot be relieved by morphine.

Olivera had part-time appointments in the United States while maintaining his full-time position in the Philippines. He first began as a visiting associate professor at Kansas State University and later at the University at Utah. “I would spend seven or eight months in the Philippines and five or four months in the U.S,” he says. Olivera became a full-time member of the faculty at the University of Utah in the 1970s after political and economic upheaval in the Philippines over Ferdinand Marcos' rule made Olivera decide to return full-time to the United States.

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Conus snails. Photo courtesy of Olivera.
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Conus snail attacks a fish. Photo courtesy of Olivera.

The toxins made by the Conus snails are highly specific for particular targets in the nervous system, such as ion channels. For example, the μ-conotoxins hit sodium receptor ion channels, and ω-conotoxins (one of which, ω-GVIA, is described in this JBC Classic) bind to neuronal calcium channels to inhibit calcium uptake at the presynaptic junction and shut down biochemical signaling at certain synapses.

ω-Conotoxin GVIA is a 27-amino acid peptide originally called the “shaker” peptide because it made mice shake. “A number of physiological experiments were done to suggest that it acted at synapses, potentially on calcium channels,” says Olivera. “The importance of this paper is that for the first time the peptide was chemically synthesized and became available to the whole neuroscience community.”

The neuroscience community desperately needed this peptide. Up to this point, neuroscientists relied on dihydropyridines to study voltage-gated calcium channels. However, these dihydropyridines had confusing effects on neuronal voltage-gated calcium channels, which made data interpretation difficult. With ω-conotoxin GVIA as a synthetic peptide, neuroscientists now had a molecular tool that clearly targeted a very specific type of neuronal voltage-gated calcium channel.

The peptide was short enough to be amenable to synthesis, and Olivera is grateful to his collaborator, Jean Rivier, who was an expert in synthesizing neuropeptides, for the successful synthesis of this peptide. The peptide had only 27 amino acids but contained three disulfide bonds, “so there were fifteen possible isomers,” recalls Olivera. “You had to get the cross-linking right to end up with the biologically active isomer.”

The advantage was that Olivera and colleagues had purified the native peptide, so they could compare their synthesis attempts with the native molecule. “At the beginning, we didn't even know what the true disulfide bonding was, so we did the work qualitatively to just show the synthetic material and native material co-eluted in a column.” The investigators later established how the disulfide bonds were arranged. Rivier, Olivera, and the rest of the team went on to show that their synthetic peptide behaved just like the natural one in inhibiting calcium entry at chicken synaptosomes and was biologically active.

John Exton at Vanderbilt University says “The conotoxins have proved to be extremely important molecular probes in neuroscience in defining functional roles for many receptors and ion channels.”

When the paper was published, Olivera was deluged with requests for the peptide. Rivier had been able to synthesize a sizeable amount, and because it was active at subpicomolar concentrations, a little bit of it went a long way. Olivera was able to distribute the peptide, and eventually, several commercial enterprises got into the business of producing and supplying it.

“I believe there is something on the order of two thousand studies in the literature using this particular peptide,” says Olivera. “It's interesting that there are hundreds of thousands of peptides in Conus venom that we call conotoxins. But among physiologists, if you say conotoxin, this is the peptide they think of because this is the one that's most widely used.” In fact, points out Olivera, when the neuronal calcium channel was purified eight years later, it was actually called the conotoxin receptor.


Robert Simoni at Stanford University (JBC Associate Editor) nominated the papers as Classics, and Rajendrani Mukhopadhya (ASBMB's Senior Science Writer) wrote the introduction.

Articles from The Journal of Biological Chemistry are provided here courtesy of American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology