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1.  Pre-Clinical Assays Predict Pan-African Echis Viper Efficacy for a Species-Specific Antivenom 
Snakebite is a significant cause of death and disability in subsistent farming populations of sub-Saharan Africa. Antivenom is the most effective treatment of envenoming and is manufactured from IgG of venom-immunised horses/sheep but, because of complex fiscal reasons, there is a paucity of antivenom in sub-Saharan Africa. To address the plight of thousands of snakebite victims in savannah Nigeria, the EchiTAb Study Group organised the production, testing and delivery of antivenoms designed to treat envenoming by the most medically-important snakes in the region. The Echis saw-scaled vipers have a wide African distribution and medical importance. In an effort to maximise the clinical utility of scarce antivenom resources in Africa, we aimed to ascertain, at the pre-clinical level, to what extent the E. ocellatus-specific EchiTAbG antivenom, which was designed specifically for Nigeria, neutralised the lethal activity of venom from two other African species, E. pyramidum leakeyi and E. coloratus.
Methodology/Principal Findings
Despite apparently quite distinctive venom protein profiles, we observed extensive cross-species similarity in the immuno-reactivity profiles of Echis species-specific antisera. Using WHO standard pre-clinical in vivo tests, we determined that the monospecific EchiTAbG antivenom was as effective at neutralising the venom-induced lethal effects of E. pyramidum leakeyi and E. coloratus as it was against E. ocellatus venom. Under the restricted conditions of this assay, the antivenom was ineffective against the lethal effects of venom from the non-African Echis species, E. carinatus sochureki.
Using WHO-recommended pre-clinical tests we have demonstrated that the new anti-E. ocellatus monospecific antivenom EchiTAbG, developed in response to the considerable snakebite-induced mortality and morbidity in Nigeria, neutralised the lethal effects of venoms from Echis species representing each taxonomic group of this genus in Africa. This suggests that this monospecific antivenom has potential to treat envenoming by most, perhaps all, African Echis species.
Author Summary
Snakebite is principally a health concern of rural poor communities. The high snakebite risk of subsistence farming and paucity of effective antivenoms in sub-Saharan Africa means that many communities remain unacceptably vulnerable to snakebite mortality and morbidity. There is therefore a compelling need to maximise the utility of the snakebite therapies that are available. To address Nigeria's severe snakebite problem, the government funded a collaboration of ministry officials, antivenom manufacturers and academics (the EchiTAb Study Group) to produce, test and deliver antivenom. Accordingly, we prepared EchiTAbG, an antivenom specific for envenoming by the saw-scaled viper (E. ocellatus) which is responsible for 80% of snakebite deaths in Nigeria. Since E. ocellatus is widely distributed across the West African savannah, EchiTAbG offers considerable therapeutic promise in many countries in the region. Since other Echis species represent public health concerns elsewhere in Africa, the objective of this study was to examine the pre-clinical intra-generic venom-neutralising efficacy of EchiTAbG. Our results suggest that EchiTAbG (Nigeria registration: A6-0078) has pan-African efficacy against Echis envenoming indicating that costly investment in region-specific antivenoms therefore may not be required. This represents an important progression to minimise development costs and maximise the delivery of snakebite therapy for the continent.
PMCID: PMC2964286  PMID: 21049058
2.  A Transcriptomic View of the Proteome Variability of Newborn and Adult Bothrops jararaca Snake Venoms 
Snake bite is a neglected public health problem in communities in rural areas of several countries. Bothrops jararaca causes many snake bites in Brazil and previous studies have demonstrated that the pharmacological activities displayed by its venom undergo a significant ontogenetic shift. Similarly, the venom proteome of B. jararaca exhibits a considerable variation upon neonate to adult transition, which is associated with changes in diet from ectothermic prey in early life to endothermic prey in adulthood. Moreover, it has been shown that the Brazilian commercial antibothropic antivenom, which is produced by immunization with adult venom, is less effective in neutralizing newborn venom effects. On the other hand, venom gland transcripts of newborn snakes are poorly known since all transcriptomic studies have been carried out using mRNA from adult specimens.
Methods/Principal Findings
Here we analyzed venom gland cDNA libraries of newborn and adult B. jararaca in order to evaluate whether the variability demonstrated for its venom proteome and pharmacological activities was correlated with differences in the structure of toxin transcripts. The analysis revealed that the variability in B. jararaca venom gland transcriptomes is quantitative, as illustrated by the very high content of metalloproteinases in the newborn venom glands. Moreover, the variability is also characterized by the structural diversity of SVMP precursors found in newborn and adult transcriptomes. In the adult transcriptome, however, the content of metalloproteinase precursors considerably diminishes and the number of transcripts of serine proteinases, C-type lectins and bradykinin-potentiating peptides increase. Moreover, the comparison of the content of ESTs encoding toxins in adult male and female venom glands showed some gender-related differences.
We demonstrate a substantial shift in toxin transcripts upon snake development and a marked decrease in the metalloproteinase P-III/P-I class ratio which are correlated with changes in the venom proteome complexity and pharmacological activities.
Author Summary
Bothrops jararaca is one of the most abundant venomous snake species in Brazil. It is primarily a nocturnal and generalist animal, however, it exhibits a notable ontogenetic shift in diet, feeding mainly on arthropods, lizards, and amphibians (ectothermic prey) through its juvenile phase and on small mammals (endothermic animals) during adult life. Due to its broad geographical distribution, this species is responsible for the majority of the accidents by Bothrops genus in Brazil. Studies on envenomation cases with newborn and adult B. jararaca snakes have shown distinct patterns, mainly related to blood coagulation disorders, which seems to be prominent in accidents with newborn specimens. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that the Brazilian commercial antibothropic antivenom, which is produced by immunization with adult venom, is less effective in neutralizing newborn venom effects. In this study we analyzed the venom gland transcriptome of newborn snake specimens and compared the content of toxin transcripts with that of adult specimens. We demonstrate that upon B. jararaca development, its repertoire of mRNAs encoding toxins changes both qualitatively and quantitatively and these alterations are associated with the venom proteome profiles and pharmacological activities displayed by newborn and adult specimens.
PMCID: PMC3302817  PMID: 22428077
3.  Bioinformatics and Multiepitope DNA Immunization to Design Rational Snake Antivenom 
PLoS Medicine  2006;3(6):e184.
Snake venom is a potentially lethal and complex mixture of hundreds of functionally diverse proteins that are difficult to purify and hence difficult to characterize. These difficulties have inhibited the development of toxin-targeted therapy, and conventional antivenom is still generated from the sera of horses or sheep immunized with whole venom. Although life-saving, antivenoms contain an immunoglobulin pool of unknown antigen specificity and known redundancy, which necessitates the delivery of large volumes of heterologous immunoglobulin to the envenomed victim, thus increasing the risk of anaphylactoid and serum sickness adverse effects. Here we exploit recent molecular sequence analysis and DNA immunization tools to design more rational toxin-targeted antivenom.
Methods and Findings
We developed a novel bioinformatic strategy that identified sequences encoding immunogenic and structurally significant epitopes from an expressed sequence tag database of a venom gland cDNA library of Echis ocellatus, the most medically important viper in Africa. Focusing upon snake venom metalloproteinases (SVMPs) that are responsible for the severe and frequently lethal hemorrhage in envenomed victims, we identified seven epitopes that we predicted would be represented in all isomers of this multimeric toxin and that we engineered into a single synthetic multiepitope DNA immunogen (epitope string). We compared the specificity and toxin-neutralizing efficacy of antiserum raised against the string to antisera raised against a single SVMP toxin (or domains) or antiserum raised by conventional (whole venom) immunization protocols. The SVMP string antiserum, as predicted in silico, contained antibody specificities to numerous SVMPs in E. ocellatus venom and venoms of several other African vipers. More significantly, the antiserum cross-specifically neutralized hemorrhage induced by E. ocellatus and Cerastes cerastes cerastes venoms.
These data provide valuable sequence and structure/function information of viper venom hemorrhagins but, more importantly, a new opportunity to design toxin-specific antivenoms—the first major conceptual change in antivenom design after more than a century of production. Furthermore, this approach may be adapted to immunotherapy design in other cases where targets are numerous, diverse, and poorly characterized such as those generated by hypermutation or antigenic variation.
Editors' Summary
Of the 3,000 species of snakes worldwide, about 600 are poisonous; poisonous snakes are a particular problem in Africa and Southeast Asia. Because not all victims of snake bites get to hospital, estimates of illness and death caused are very approximate. However, one estimate quoted by the World Health Organization is that 2.5 million snake bites occur each year and 125,000 are fatal. The effects of snake bites vary, obviously depending on which snake does the biting, but immediate effects include swelling (around the bite or of other parts of the body), death of the area around the bite, and blood clotting problems. Nowadays, snake bite is treated with “antivenoms,” which are usually made from immunizing horses or sheep with snake venom. However, these antivenoms contain many different proteins that can themselves trigger unpleasant reactions in the recipient. One problem with developing antivenoms is that venoms contain many hundreds of different proteins, many of which may contribute to the toxic effect.
Why Was This Study Done?
Recent scientific discoveries have led to new ways of finding which parts of an animal's genetic sequence are active in any one particular part of the body, and also whether the proteins produced from these genes are likely to cause illness. A snake's venom gland, where the venom is made, can be analysed this way. The researchers wanted to use this information to develop a more rational way of designing antivenoms.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
They studied the venom glands of the carpet viper (Echis ocellatus), the most medically important snake in West Africa. They isolated expressed sequence tags (ESTs) produced by the venom glands. Each EST is a small part of the active part of a gene. They then focused on one group of genes that make proteins called snake venom metalloproteinases (SVMPs), which destroy other proteins, and which cause many of the severe symptoms, such as bleeding, seen after snake bite. They identified seven parts of these SVMPs that were likely to be clinically important, and engineered them into a single string of DNA. This product is known as an immunogen—that is, it can produce an immune response in an animal. And when this immunogen was injected into mice, the researchers found that the serum (the part of the blood that contains antibodies) from these mice did have a specific effect against the SVMPs in snake venom. It also had some effect, again in mice, against bleeding caused by small doses of snake venom.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These results suggest that it is possible to use some of the newest genetic techniques to design immunogens that can be used to make highly specific, toxin-neutralizing antisera. These immunogens are a possible improvement over conventional antivenoms that are raised against whole venom. This approach could mean that lower doses of antivenoms would be needed than for conventional antivenoms. In addition, it may also be possible to design antivenoms that work against different species of snake venom. Results such as this may persuade a company that it is worth investing further in such antivenoms; as with many diseases of the poorer parts of the world, snake bites have not been of great interest to large pharmaceutical companies. In another paper published in PLoS Medicine, José María Gutiérrez et al. discuss the global problem of snake bites.
Additional Information
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at
•  World Health Organization page on animal bites, including snakes
•  MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia pages of health information (these pages are most relevant in the US)
Seven epitopes were identified providing valuable sequence and structure/function information of viper venom hemorrhagins. This has created a new opportunity to design toxin-specific antivenoms.
PMCID: PMC1472699  PMID: 16737347
4.  Coevolution of diet and prey-specific venom activity supports the role of selection in snake venom evolution 
The processes that drive the evolution of snake venom variability, particularly the role of diet, have been a topic of intense recent research interest. Here, we test whether extensive variation in venom composition in the medically important viper genus Echis is associated with shifts in diet. Examination of stomach and hindgut contents revealed extreme variation between the major clades of Echis in the proportion of arthropod prey consumed. The toxicity (median lethal dose, LD50) of representative Echis venoms to a natural scorpion prey species was found to be strongly associated with the degree of arthropod feeding. Mapping the results onto a novel Echis phylogeny generated from nuclear and mitochondrial sequence data revealed two independent instances of coevolution of venom toxicity and diet. Unlike venom LD50, the speed with which venoms incapacitated and killed scorpions was not associated with the degree of arthropod feeding. The prey-specific venom toxicity of arthropod-feeding Echis may thus be adaptive primarily by reducing venom expenditure. Overall, our results provide strong evidence that variation in snake venom composition results from adaptive evolution driven by natural selection for different diets, and underscores the need for a multi-faceted, integrative approach to the study of the causes of venom evolution.
PMCID: PMC2690460  PMID: 19364745
snake venom; adaptation; diet; coevolution; Echis
5.  Profiling the venom gland transcriptomes of Costa Rican snakes by 454 pyrosequencing 
BMC Genomics  2011;12:259.
A long term research goal of venomics, of applied importance for improving current antivenom therapy, but also for drug discovery, is to understand the pharmacological potential of venoms. Individually or combined, proteomic and transcriptomic studies have demonstrated their feasibility to explore in depth the molecular diversity of venoms. In the absence of genome sequence, transcriptomes represent also valuable searchable databases for proteomic projects.
The venom gland transcriptomes of 8 Costa Rican taxa from 5 genera (Crotalus, Bothrops, Atropoides, Cerrophidion, and Bothriechis) of pitvipers were investigated using high-throughput 454 pyrosequencing. 100,394 out of 330,010 masked reads produced significant hits in the available databases. 5.165,220 nucleotides (8.27%) were masked by RepeatMasker, the vast majority of which corresponding to class I (retroelements) and class II (DNA transposons) mobile elements. BLAST hits included 79,991 matches to entries of the taxonomic suborder Serpentes, of which 62,433 displayed similarity to documented venom proteins. Strong discrepancies between the transcriptome-computed and the proteome-gathered toxin compositions were obvious at first sight. Although the reasons underlaying this discrepancy are elusive, since no clear trend within or between species is apparent, the data indicate that individual mRNA species may be translationally controlled in a species-dependent manner. The minimum number of genes from each toxin family transcribed into the venom gland transcriptome of each species was calculated from multiple alignments of reads matched to a full-length reference sequence of each toxin family. Reads encoding ORF regions of Kazal-type inhibitor-like proteins were uniquely found in Bothriechis schlegelii and B. lateralis transcriptomes, suggesting a genus-specific recruitment event during the early-Middle Miocene. A transcriptome-based cladogram supports the large divergence between A. mexicanus and A. picadoi, and a closer kinship between A. mexicanus and C. godmani.
Our comparative next-generation sequencing (NGS) analysis reveals taxon-specific trends governing the formulation of the venom arsenal. Knowledge of the venom proteome provides hints on the translation efficiency of toxin-coding transcripts, contributing thereby to a more accurate interpretation of the transcriptome. The application of NGS to the analysis of snake venom transcriptomes, may represent the tool for opening the door to systems venomics.
PMCID: PMC3128066  PMID: 21605378
Snake venom gland transcriptomics; next generation high-throughput DNA sequencing; 454 pyrosequencing; bioinformatic analysis; Costa Rican snakes; Bothrops asper; Bothriechis; Atropoides; Crotalus; Cerrophidion
6.  Integrated “omics” profiling indicates that miRNAs are modulators of the ontogenetic venom composition shift in the Central American rattlesnake, Crotalus simus simus 
BMC Genomics  2013;14:234.
Understanding the processes that drive the evolution of snake venom is a topic of great research interest in molecular and evolutionary toxinology. Recent studies suggest that ontogenetic changes in venom composition are genetically controlled rather than environmentally induced. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying these changes remain elusive. Here we have explored the basis and level of regulation of the ontogenetic shift in the venom composition of the Central American rattlesnake, Crotalus s. simus using a combined proteomics and transcriptomics approach.
Proteomic analysis showed that the ontogenetic shift in the venom composition of C. s. simus is essentially characterized by a gradual reduction in the expression of serine proteinases and PLA2 molecules, particularly crotoxin, a β-neurotoxic heterodimeric PLA2, concominantly with an increment of PI and PIII metalloproteinases at age 9–18 months. Comparison of the transcriptional activity of the venom glands of neonate and adult C. s. simus specimens indicated that their transcriptomes exhibit indistinguisable toxin family profiles, suggesting that the elusive mechanism by which shared transcriptomes generate divergent venom phenotypes may operate post-transcriptionally. Specifically, miRNAs with frequency count of 1000 or greater exhibited an uneven distribution between the newborn and adult datasets. Of note, 590 copies of a miRNA targeting crotoxin B-subunit was exclusively found in the transcriptome of the adult snake, whereas 1185 copies of a miRNA complementary to a PIII-SVMP mRNA was uniquely present in the newborn dataset. These results support the view that age-dependent changes in the concentration of miRNA modulating the transition from a crotoxin-rich to a SVMP-rich venom from birth through adulhood can potentially explain what is observed in the proteomic analysis of the ontogenetic changes in the venom composition of C. s. simus.
Existing snake venom toxins are the result of early recruitment events in the Toxicofera clade of reptiles by which ordinary genes were duplicated, and the new genes selectively expressed in the venom gland and amplified to multigene families with extensive neofunctionalization throughout the approximately 112–125 million years of ophidian evolution. Our findings support the view that understanding the phenotypic diversity of snake venoms requires a deep knowledge of the mechanisms regulating the transcriptional and translational activity of the venom gland. Our results suggest a functional role for miRNAs. The impact of specific miRNAs in the modulation of venom composition, and the integration of the mechanisms responsible for the generation of these miRNAs in the evolutionary landscape of the snake's venom gland, are further challenges for future research.
PMCID: PMC3660174  PMID: 23575160
Ontogenetic venom shift; Venomics; Snake venom gland transcriptomics; 454 pyrosequencing; Ion-Torrent microRNA profiling; Crotalus simus simus
7.  Diversity of Micrurus Snake Species Related to Their Venom Toxic Effects and the Prospective of Antivenom Neutralization 
Micrurus snake bites can cause death by muscle paralysis and respiratory arrest, few hours after envenomation. The specific treatment for coral snake envenomation is the intravenous application of heterologous antivenom and, in Brazil, it is produced by horse immunization with a mixture of M. corallinus and M. frontalis venoms, snakes that inhabit the South and Southeastern regions of the country. However, this antivenom might be inefficient, considering the existence of intra- and inter-specific variations in the composition of the venoms. Therefore, the aim of the present study was to investigate the toxic properties of venoms from nine species of Micrurus: eight present in different geographic regions of Brazil (M. frontalis, M. corallinus, M. hemprichii, M. spixii, M. altirostris, M. surinamensis, M. ibiboboca, M. lemniscatus) and one (M. fulvius) with large distribution in Southeastern United States and Mexico. This study also analyzed the antigenic cross-reactivity and the neutralizing potential of the Brazilian coral snake antivenom against these Micrurus venoms.
Methodology/Principal Findings
Analysis of protein composition and toxicity revealed a large diversity of venoms from the nine Micrurus species. ELISA and Western blot assays showed a varied capability of the therapeutic antivenom to recognize the diverse species venom components. In vivo and in vitro neutralization assays indicated that the antivenom is not able to fully neutralize the toxic activities of all venoms.
These results indicate the existence of a large range of both qualitative and quantitative variations in Micrurus venoms, probably reflecting the adaptation of the snakes from this genus to vastly dissimilar habitats. The data also show that the antivenom used for human therapy in Brazil is not fully able to neutralize the main toxic activities present in the venoms from all Micrurus species occurring in the country. It suggests that modifications in the immunization scheme, with the inclusion of other venoms in the antigenic mixture, should occur in order to generate effective therapeutic coral snake antivenom.
Author Summary
The Elapidae family is represented in America by three genera of coral snakes: Micruroides, Leptomicrurus and Micrurus, the latter being the most abundant and diversified group. Micrurus bites can cause death by muscle paralysis and respiratory arrest few hours after envenomation. The specific treatment for Micrurus envenomation is the application of heterologous antivenom. The aim of this study was to compare the toxicity of venoms from nine species of coral snakes and analyze the neutralization potential of the Brazilian coral snake antivenom. In vitro assays showed that the majority of the Micrurus venoms are endowed with phospholipase and hyaluronidase and low proteolytic activities. These enzymes are not equally neutralized in all venoms by the therapeutic antivenom. Moreover, in vivo assays showed that some of the Micrurus venoms are extremely lethal, such as the ones from M. altirostris, M. corallinus, M. frontalis, M. lemniscatus and M. spixii. Neutralization tests, performed in vivo, showed that the therapeutic antivenom was able to neutralize better the venoms from M. frontalis, M. corallinus, and M. spixii but not from M. altirostris and M. lemniscatus. Taken together, these results suggest that modifications in the immunization antigenic mixture should occur in order to generate more comprehensive therapeutic antivenom.
PMCID: PMC2834742  PMID: 20231886
8.  The venom-gland transcriptome of the eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) reveals high venom complexity in the intragenomic evolution of venoms 
BMC Genomics  2013;14:531.
Snake venom is shaped by the ecology and evolution of venomous species, and signals of positive selection in toxins have been consistently documented, reflecting the role of venoms as an ecologically critical phenotype. New World coral snakes (Elapidae) are represented by three genera and over 120 species and subspecies that are capable of causing significant human morbidity and mortality, yet coral-snake venom composition is poorly understood in comparison to that of Old World elapids. High-throughput sequencing is capable of identifying thousands of loci, while providing characterizations of expression patterns and the molecular evolutionary forces acting within the venom gland.
We describe the de novo assembly and analysis of the venom-gland transcriptome of the eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius). We identified 1,950 nontoxin transcripts and 116 toxin transcripts. These transcripts accounted for 57.1% of the total reads, with toxins accounting for 45.8% of the total reads. Phospholipases A2 and three-finger toxins dominated expression, accounting for 86.0% of the toxin reads. A total of 15 toxin families were identified, revealing venom complexity previously unknown from New World coral snakes. Toxins exhibited high levels of heterozygosity relative to nontoxins, and overdominance may favor gene duplication leading to the fixation of advantageous alleles. Phospholipase A2 expression was uniformly distributed throughout the class while three-finger toxin expression was dominated by a handful of transcripts, and phylogenetic analyses indicate that toxin divergence may have occurred following speciation. Positive selection was detected in three of the four most diverse toxin classes, suggesting that venom diversification is driven by recurrent directional selection.
We describe the most complete characterization of an elapid venom gland to date. Toxin gene duplication may be driven by heterozygote advantage, as the frequency of polymorphic toxin loci was significantly higher than that of nontoxins. Diversification among toxins appeared to follow speciation reflecting species-specific adaptation, and this divergence may be directly related to dietary shifts and is suggestive of a coevolutionary arms race.
PMCID: PMC3750283  PMID: 23915248
9.  The venom gland transcriptome of the Desert Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus edwardsii): towards an understanding of venom composition among advanced snakes (Superfamily Colubroidea) 
BMC Molecular Biology  2007;8:115.
Snake venoms are complex mixtures of pharmacologically active proteins and peptides which belong to a small number of superfamilies. Global cataloguing of the venom transcriptome facilitates the identification of new families of toxins as well as helps in understanding the evolution of venom proteomes.
We have constructed a cDNA library of the venom gland of a threatened rattlesnake (a pitviper), Sistrurus catenatus edwardsii (Desert Massasauga), and sequenced 576 ESTs. Our results demonstrate a high abundance of serine proteinase and metalloproteinase transcripts, indicating that the disruption of hemostasis is a principle mechanism of action of the venom. In addition to the transcripts encoding common venom proteins, we detected two varieties of low abundance unique transcripts in the library; these encode for three-finger toxins and a novel toxin possibly generated from the fusion of two genes. We also observed polyadenylated ribosomal RNAs in the venom gland library, an interesting preliminary obsevation of this unusual phenomenon in a reptilian system.
The three-finger toxins are characteristic of most elapid venoms but are rare in viperid venoms. We detected several ESTs encoding this group of toxins in this study. We also observed the presence of a transcript encoding a fused protein of two well-characterized toxins (Kunitz/BPTI and Waprins), and this is the first report of this kind of fusion in a snake toxin transcriptome. We propose that these new venom proteins may have ancillary functions for envenomation. The presence of a fused toxin indicates that in addition to gene duplication and accelerated evolution, exon shuffling or transcriptional splicing may also contribute to generating the diversity of toxins and toxin isoforms observed among snake venoms. The detection of low abundance toxins, as observed in this and other studies, indicates a greater compositional similarity of venoms (though potency will differ) among advanced snakes than has been previously recognized.
PMCID: PMC2242803  PMID: 18096037
10.  Reappraisal of Vipera aspis Venom Neurotoxicity 
PLoS ONE  2007;2(11):e1194.
The variation of venom composition with geography is an important aspect of intraspecific variability in the Vipera genus, although causes of this variability remain unclear. The diversity of snake venom is important both for our understanding of venomous snake evolution and for the preparation of relevant antivenoms to treat envenomations. A geographic intraspecific variation in snake venom composition was recently reported for Vipera aspis aspis venom in France. Since 1992, cases of human envenomation after Vipera aspis aspis bites in south-east France involving unexpected neurological signs were regularly reported. The presence of genes encoding PLA2 neurotoxins in the Vaa snake genome led us to investigate any neurological symptom associated with snake bites in other regions of France and in neighboring countries. In parallel, we used several approaches to characterize the venom PLA2 composition of the snakes captured in the same areas.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We conducted an epidemiological survey of snake bites in various regions of France. In parallel, we carried out the analysis of the genes and the transcripts encoding venom PLA2s. We used SELDI technology to study the diversity of PLA2 in various venom samples. Neurological signs (mainly cranial nerve disturbances) were reported after snake bites in three regions of France: Languedoc-Roussillon, Midi-Pyrénées and Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. Genomes of Vipera aspis snakes from south-east France were shown to contain ammodytoxin isoforms never described in the genome of Vipera aspis from other French regions. Surprisingly, transcripts encoding venom neurotoxic PLA2s were found in snakes of Massif Central region. Accordingly, SELDI analysis of PLA2 venom composition confirmed the existence of population of neurotoxic Vipera aspis snakes in the west part of the Massif Central mountains.
The association of epidemiological studies to genetic, biochemical and immunochemical analyses of snake venoms allowed a good evaluation of the potential neurotoxicity of snake bites. A correlation was found between the expression of neurological symptoms in humans and the intensity of the cross-reaction of venoms with anti-ammodytoxin antibodies, which is correlated with the level of neurotoxin (vaspin and/or ammodytoxin) expression in the venom. The origin of the two recently identified neurotoxic snake populations is discussed according to venom PLA2 genome and transcriptome data.
PMCID: PMC2065900  PMID: 18030329
11.  The genesis of an exceptionally lethal venom in the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) revealed through comparative venom-gland transcriptomics 
BMC Genomics  2013;14:394.
Snake venoms generally show sequence and quantitative variation within and between species, but some rattlesnakes have undergone exceptionally rapid, dramatic shifts in the composition, lethality, and pharmacological effects of their venoms. Such shifts have occurred within species, most notably in Mojave (Crotalus scutulatus), South American (C. durissus), and timber (C. horridus) rattlesnakes, resulting in some populations with extremely potent, neurotoxic venoms without the hemorrhagic effects typical of rattlesnake bites.
To better understand the evolutionary changes that resulted in the potent venom of a population of C. horridus from northern Florida, we sequenced the venom-gland transcriptome of an animal from this population for comparison with the previously described transcriptome of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (C. adamanteus), a congener with a more typical rattlesnake venom. Relative to the toxin transcription of C. adamanteus, which consisted primarily of snake-venom metalloproteinases, C-type lectins, snake-venom serine proteinases, and myotoxin-A, the toxin transcription of C. horridus was far simpler in composition and consisted almost entirely of snake-venom serine proteinases, phospholipases A2, and bradykinin-potentiating and C-type natriuretic peptides. Crotalus horridus lacked significant expression of the hemorrhagic snake-venom metalloproteinases and C-type lectins. Evolution of shared toxin families involved differential expansion and loss of toxin clades within each species and pronounced differences in the highly expressed toxin paralogs. Toxin genes showed significantly higher rates of nonsynonymous substitution than nontoxin genes. The expression patterns of nontoxin genes were conserved between species, despite the vast differences in toxin expression.
Our results represent the first complete, sequence-based comparison between the venoms of closely related snake species and reveal in unprecedented detail the rapid evolution of snake venoms. We found that the difference in venom properties resulted from major changes in expression levels of toxin gene families, differential gene-family expansion and loss, changes in which paralogs within gene families were expressed at high levels, and higher nonsynonymous substitution rates in the toxin genes relative to nontoxins. These massive alterations in the genetics of the venom phenotype emphasize the evolutionary lability and flexibility of this ecologically critical trait.
PMCID: PMC3701607  PMID: 23758969
12.  Phylogeny-Based Comparative Analysis of Venom Proteome Variation in a Clade of Rattlesnakes (Sistrurus sp.) 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(6):e67220.
A long-standing question in evolutionary studies of snake venoms is the extent to which phylogenetic divergence and diet can account for between-species differences in venom composition. Here we apply phylogeny-based comparative methods to address this question. We use data on venom variation generated using proteomic techniques for all members of a small clade of rattlesnakes (Sistrurus sp.) and two outgroups for which phylogenetic and diet information is available. We first complete the characterization of venom variation for all members of this clade with a “venomic” analysis of pooled venoms from two members of this genus, S. milarius streckeri and S. m. milarius. These venoms exhibit the same general classes of proteins as those found in other Sistrurus species but differ in their relative abundances of specific protein families. We then test whether there is significant phylogenetic signal in the relative abundances of major venom proteins across species and if diet (measured as percent mammals and lizards among all prey consumed) covaries with venom composition after phylogenetic divergence is accounted for. We found no evidence for significant phylogenetic signal in venom variation: K values for seven snake venom proteins and two composite venom variables [PC 1 and 2]) were all nonsignificant and lower (mean = 0.11+0.06 sd) than mean K values (>0.35) previously reported for a wide range of morphological, life history, physiological and behavioral traits from other species. Finally, analyses based on Phylogenetic Generalized Least Squares (PGLS) methods reveal that variation in abundance of some venom proteins, most strongly CRISP is significantly related to snake diet. Our results demonstrate that venom variation in these snakes is evolutionarily a highly labile trait even among very closely-related taxa and that natural selection acting through diet variation may play a role in molding the relative abundance of specific venom proteins.
PMCID: PMC3691181  PMID: 23826238
13.  Comparison of Phylogeny, Venom Composition and Neutralization by Antivenom in Diverse Species of Bothrops Complex 
In Latin America, Bothrops snakes account for most snake bites in humans, and the recommended treatment is administration of multispecific Bothrops antivenom (SAB – soro antibotrópico). However, Bothrops snakes are very diverse with regard to their venom composition, which raises the issue of which venoms should be used as immunizing antigens for the production of pan-specific Bothrops antivenoms. In this study, we simultaneously compared the composition and reactivity with SAB of venoms collected from six species of snakes, distributed in pairs from three distinct phylogenetic clades: Bothrops, Bothropoides and Rhinocerophis. We also evaluated the neutralization of Bothrops atrox venom, which is the species responsible for most snake bites in the Amazon region, but not included in the immunization antigen mixture used to produce SAB. Using mass spectrometric and chromatographic approaches, we observed a lack of similarity in protein composition between the venoms from closely related snakes and a high similarity between the venoms of phylogenetically more distant snakes, suggesting little connection between taxonomic position and venom composition. P-III snake venom metalloproteinases (SVMPs) are the most antigenic toxins in the venoms of snakes from the Bothrops complex, whereas class P-I SVMPs, snake venom serine proteinases and phospholipases A2 reacted with antibodies in lower levels. Low molecular size toxins, such as disintegrins and bradykinin-potentiating peptides, were poorly antigenic. Toxins from the same protein family showed antigenic cross-reactivity among venoms from different species; SAB was efficient in neutralizing the B. atrox venom major toxins. Thus, we suggest that it is possible to obtain pan-specific effective antivenoms for Bothrops envenomations through immunization with venoms from only a few species of snakes, if these venoms contain protein classes that are representative of all species to which the antivenom is targeted.
Author Summary
Snakebite envenomation is a serious health issue in Latin America, particularly in the Amazon, where antivenom administration may be delayed due to logistic constraints. Bothrops snakes are involved in most of the snakebite-related accidents in Brazil. This work reports a comparative study of the toxin composition and antigenicity of the Bothrops venoms used to prepare the commercial antivenom and its effectiveness against the venom from Bothrops atrox, a prevalent Amazon species that is not included in the pool. Our data show a lack of connection between Bothrops taxonomic identity and venom composition. We also show that different toxins display distinct reactivity with the tested antivenom. However, the antivenom reacted similarly with each class of toxin present in the venoms of the different snakes studied. Important evidence was the neutralization of the major toxic effects of B. atrox venom, not included in the mixture of antigens used to produce the antivenom. Based on the observed antigenicity of the distinct protein classes of toxins, we suggest that it is possible to obtain pan-specific and efficient Bothrops antivenoms via immunization with venoms from a few species of snakes that are representative of the protein composition of a large number of targeted species.
PMCID: PMC3772048  PMID: 24069493
14.  De Novo sequencing and transcriptome analysis for Tetramorium bicarinatum: a comprehensive venom gland transcriptome analysis from an ant species 
BMC Genomics  2014;15(1):987.
Arthropod venoms are invaluable sources of bioactive substances with biotechnological application. The limited availability of some venoms, such as those from ants, has restricted the knowledge about the composition and the potential that these biomolecules could represent. In order to provide a global insight on the transcripts expressed in the venom gland of the Brazilian ant species Tetramorium bicarinatum and to unveil the potential of its products, high-throughput approach using Illumina technology has been applied to analyze the genes expressed in active venom glands of this ant species.
A total of 212,371,758 pairs of quality-filtered, 100-base-pair Illumina reads were obtained. The de novo assemblies yielded 36,042 contigs for which 27,873 have at least one predicted ORF among which 59.77% produce significant hits in the available databases. The investigation of the reads mapping toxin class revealed a high diversification with the major part consistent with the classical hymenopteran venom protein signature represented by venom allergen (33.3%), followed by a diverse toxin-expression profile including several distinct isoforms of phospholipase A1 and A2, venom serine protease, hyaluronidase, protease inhibitor and secapin. Moreover, our results revealed for the first time the presence of toxin-like peptides that have been previously identified from unrelated venomous animals such as waprin-like (snakes) and agatoxins (spiders and conus).
The non-toxin transcripts were mainly represented by contigs involved in protein folding and translation, consistent with the protein-secretory function of the venom gland tissue. Finally, about 40% of the generated contigs have no hits in the databases with 25% of the predicted peptides bearing signal peptide emphasizing the potential of the investigation of these sequences as source of new molecules. Among these contigs, six putative novel peptides that show homologies with previously identified antimicrobial peptides were identified.
To the best of our knowledge, this work reports the first large-scale analysis of genes transcribed by the venomous gland of the ant species T. bicarinatum and helps with the identification of Hymenoptera toxin arsenal. In addition, results from this study demonstrate that de novo transcriptome assembly allows useful venom gene expression analysis in a species lacking a genome sequence database.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/1471-2164-15-987) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4256838  PMID: 25407482
Tetramorium bicarinatum; Social hymenoptera; Ant; Venom glands; Venom toxins; Hymenopteran allergens; de novo assembly; New generation sequencing; Illumina technology
15.  Expression pattern of three-finger toxin and phospholipase A2 genes in the venom glands of two sea snakes, Lapemis curtus and Acalyptophis peronii: comparison of evolution of these toxins in land snakes, sea kraits and sea snakes 
Snake venom composition varies widely both among closely related species and within the same species, based on ecological variables. In terrestrial snakes, such variation has been proposed to be due to snakes' diet. Land snakes target various prey species including insects (arthropods), lizards (reptiles), frogs and toads (amphibians), birds (aves), and rodents (mammals), whereas sea snakes target a single vertebrate class (fishes) and often specialize on specific types of fish. It is therefore interesting to examine the evolution of toxins in sea snake venoms compared to that of land snakes.
Here we describe the expression of toxin genes in the venom glands of two sea snakes, Lapemis curtus (Spine-bellied Sea Snake) and Acalyptophis peronii (Horned Sea Snake), two members of a large adaptive radiation which occupy very different ecological niches. We constructed cDNA libraries from their venom glands and sequenced 214 and 192 clones, respectively. Our data show that despite their explosive evolutionary radiation, there is very little variability in the three-finger toxin (3FTx) as well as the phospholipase A2 (PLA2) enzymes, the two main constituents of Lapemis curtus and Acalyptophis peronii venom. To understand the evolutionary trends among land snakes, sea snakes and sea kraits, pairwise genetic distances (intraspecific and interspecific) of 3FTx and PLA2 sequences were calculated. Results show that these proteins appear to be highly conserved in sea snakes in contrast to land snakes or sea kraits, despite their extremely divergent and adaptive ecological radiation.
Based on these results, we suggest that streamlining in habitat and diet in sea snakes has possibly kept their toxin genes conserved, suggesting the idea that prey composition and diet breadth may contribute to the diversity and evolution of venom components.
PMCID: PMC2174459  PMID: 17900344
16.  Venom gland transcriptomes of two elapid snakes (Bungarus multicinctus and Naja atra) and evolution of toxin genes 
BMC Genomics  2011;12:1.
Kraits (genus Bungarus) and cobras (genus Naja) are two representative toxic genera of elapids in the old world. Although they are closely related genera and both of their venoms are very toxic, the compositions of their venoms are very different. To unveil their detailed venoms and their evolutionary patterns, we constructed venom gland cDNA libraries and genomic bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) libraries for Bungarus multicinctus and Naja atra, respectively. We sequenced about 1500 cDNA clones for each of the venom cDNA libraries and screened BAC libraries of the two snakes by blot analysis using four kinds of toxin probes; i.e., three-finger toxin (3FTx), phospholipase A2 (PLA2), kunitz-type protease inhibitor (Kunitz), and natriuretic peptide (NP).
In total, 1092 valid expressed sequences tags (ESTs) for B. multicinctus and 1166 ESTs for N. atra were generated. About 70% of these ESTs can be annotated as snake toxin transcripts. 3FTx (64.5%) and β bungarotoxin (25.1%) comprise the main toxin classes in B. multicinctus, while 3FTx (95.8%) is the dominant toxin in N. atra. We also observed several less abundant venom families in B. multicinctus and N. atra, such as PLA2, C-type lectins, and Kunitz. Peculiarly a cluster of NP precursors with tandem NPs was detected in B. multicinctus. A total of 71 positive toxin BAC clones in B. multicinctus and N. atra were identified using four kinds of toxin probes (3FTx, PLA2, Kunitz, and NP), among which 39 3FTx-postive BACs were sequenced to reveal gene structures of 3FTx toxin genes.
Based on the toxin ESTs and 3FTx gene sequences, the major components of B. multicinctus venom transcriptome are neurotoxins, including long chain alpha neurotoxins (α-ntx) and the recently originated β bungarotoxin, whereas the N. atra venom transcriptome mainly contains 3FTxs with cytotoxicity and neurotoxicity (short chain α-ntx). The data also revealed that tandem duplications contributed the most to the expansion of toxin multigene families. Analysis of nonsynonymous to synonymous nucleotide substitution rate ratios (dN/dS) indicates that not only multigene toxin families but also other less abundant toxins might have been under rapid diversifying evolution.
PMCID: PMC3023746  PMID: 21194499
17.  Venom Down Under: Dynamic Evolution of Australian Elapid Snake Toxins 
Toxins  2013;5(12):2621-2655.
Despite the unparalleled diversity of venomous snakes in Australia, research has concentrated on a handful of medically significant species and even of these very few toxins have been fully sequenced. In this study, venom gland transcriptomes were sequenced from eleven species of small Australian elapid snakes, from eleven genera, spanning a broad phylogenetic range. The particularly large number of sequences obtained for three-finger toxin (3FTx) peptides allowed for robust reconstructions of their dynamic molecular evolutionary histories. We demonstrated that each species preferentially favoured different types of α-neurotoxic 3FTx, probably as a result of differing feeding ecologies. The three forms of α-neurotoxin [Type I (also known as (aka): short-chain), Type II (aka: long-chain) and Type III] not only adopted differential rates of evolution, but have also conserved a diversity of residues, presumably to potentiate prey-specific toxicity. Despite these differences, the different α-neurotoxin types were shown to accumulate mutations in similar regions of the protein, largely in the loops and structurally unimportant regions, highlighting the significant role of focal mutagenesis. We theorize that this phenomenon not only affects toxin potency or specificity, but also generates necessary variation for preventing/delaying prey animals from acquiring venom-resistance. This study also recovered the first full-length sequences for multimeric phospholipase A2 (PLA2) ‘taipoxin/paradoxin’ subunits from non-Oxyuranus species, confirming the early recruitment of this extremely potent neurotoxin complex to the venom arsenal of Australian elapid snakes. We also recovered the first natriuretic peptides from an elapid that lack the derived C-terminal tail and resemble the plesiotypic form (ancestral character state) found in viper venoms. This provides supporting evidence for a single early recruitment of natriuretic peptides into snake venoms. Novel forms of kunitz and waprin peptides were recovered, including dual domain kunitz-kunitz precursors and the first kunitz-waprin hybrid precursors from elapid snakes. The novel sequences recovered in this study reveal that the huge diversity of unstudied venomous Australian snakes are of considerable interest not only for the investigation of venom and whole organism evolution but also represent an untapped bioresource in the search for novel compounds for use in drug design and development.
PMCID: PMC3873703  PMID: 24351719
venom; evolution; phylogeny; elapid; Australia; molecular evolution; Darwinian selection; toxin phylogenies
18.  Transcriptome Analysis in Venom Gland of the Predatory Giant Ant Dinoponera quadriceps: Insights into the Polypeptide Toxin Arsenal of Hymenopterans 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(1):e87556.
Dinoponera quadriceps is a predatory giant ant that inhabits the Neotropical region and subdues its prey (insects) with stings that deliver a toxic cocktail of molecules. Human accidents occasionally occur and cause local pain and systemic symptoms. A comprehensive study of the D. quadriceps venom gland transcriptome is required to advance our knowledge about the toxin repertoire of the giant ant venom and to understand the physiopathological basis of Hymenoptera envenomation.
We conducted a transcriptome analysis of a cDNA library from the D. quadriceps venom gland with Sanger sequencing in combination with whole-transcriptome shotgun deep sequencing. From the cDNA library, a total of 420 independent clones were analyzed. Although the proportion of dinoponeratoxin isoform precursors was high, the first giant ant venom inhibitor cysteine-knot (ICK) toxin was found. The deep next generation sequencing yielded a total of 2,514,767 raw reads that were assembled into 18,546 contigs. A BLAST search of the assembled contigs against non-redundant and Swiss-Prot databases showed that 6,463 contigs corresponded to BLASTx hits and indicated an interesting diversity of transcripts related to venom gene expression. The majority of these venom-related sequences code for a major polypeptide core, which comprises venom allergens, lethal-like proteins and esterases, and a minor peptide framework composed of inter-specific structurally conserved cysteine-rich toxins. Both the cDNA library and deep sequencing yielded large proportions of contigs that showed no similarities with known sequences.
To our knowledge, this is the first report of the venom gland transcriptome of the New World giant ant D. quadriceps. The glandular venom system was dissected, and the toxin arsenal was revealed; this process brought to light novel sequences that included an ICK-folded toxins, allergen proteins, esterases (phospholipases and carboxylesterases), and lethal-like toxins. These findings contribute to the understanding of the ecology, behavior and venomics of hymenopterans.
PMCID: PMC3909188  PMID: 24498135
19.  Evolution Stings: The Origin and Diversification of Scorpion Toxin Peptide Scaffolds 
Toxins  2013;5(12):2456-2487.
The episodic nature of natural selection and the accumulation of extreme sequence divergence in venom-encoding genes over long periods of evolutionary time can obscure the signature of positive Darwinian selection. Recognition of the true biocomplexity is further hampered by the limited taxon selection, with easy to obtain or medically important species typically being the subject of intense venom research, relative to the actual taxonomical diversity in nature. This holds true for scorpions, which are one of the most ancient terrestrial venomous animal lineages. The family Buthidae that includes all the medically significant species has been intensely investigated around the globe, while almost completely ignoring the remaining non-buthid families. Australian scorpion lineages, for instance, have been completely neglected, with only a single scorpion species (Urodacus yaschenkoi) having its venom transcriptome sequenced. Hence, the lack of venom composition and toxin sequence information from an entire continent’s worth of scorpions has impeded our understanding of the molecular evolution of scorpion venom. The molecular origin, phylogenetic relationships and evolutionary histories of most scorpion toxin scaffolds remain enigmatic. In this study, we have sequenced venom gland transcriptomes of a wide taxonomical diversity of scorpions from Australia, including buthid and non-buthid representatives. Using state-of-art molecular evolutionary analyses, we show that a majority of CSα/β toxin scaffolds have experienced episodic influence of positive selection, while most non-CSα/β linear toxins evolve under the extreme influence of negative selection. For the first time, we have unraveled the molecular origin of the major scorpion toxin scaffolds, such as scorpion venom single von Willebrand factor C-domain peptides (SV-SVC), inhibitor cystine knot (ICK), disulphide-directed beta-hairpin (DDH), bradykinin potentiating peptides (BPP), linear non-disulphide bridged peptides and antimicrobial peptides (AMP). We have thus demonstrated that even neglected lineages of scorpions are a rich pool of novel biochemical components, which have evolved over millions of years to target specific ion channels in prey animals, and as a result, possess tremendous implications in therapeutics.
PMCID: PMC3873696  PMID: 24351712
adaptive evolution; scorpion venom arsenal; scorpion toxin scaffolds
20.  A transcriptomic analysis of gene expression in the venom gland of the snake Bothrops alternatus (urutu) 
BMC Genomics  2010;11:605.
The genus Bothrops is widespread throughout Central and South America and is the principal cause of snakebite in these regions. Transcriptomic and proteomic studies have examined the venom composition of several species in this genus, but many others remain to be studied. In this work, we used a transcriptomic approach to examine the venom gland genes of Bothrops alternatus, a clinically important species found in southeastern and southern Brazil, Uruguay, northern Argentina and eastern Paraguay.
A cDNA library of 5,350 expressed sequence tags (ESTs) was produced and assembled into 838 contigs and 4512 singletons. BLAST searches of relevant databases showed 30% hits and 70% no-hits, with toxin-related transcripts accounting for 23% and 78% of the total transcripts and hits, respectively. Gene ontology analysis identified non-toxin genes related to general metabolism, transcription and translation, processing and sorting, (polypeptide) degradation, structural functions and cell regulation. The major groups of toxin transcripts identified were metalloproteinases (81%), bradykinin-potentiating peptides/C-type natriuretic peptides (8.8%), phospholipases A2 (5.6%), serine proteinases (1.9%) and C-type lectins (1.5%). Metalloproteinases were almost exclusively type PIII proteins, with few type PII and no type PI proteins. Phospholipases A2 were essentially acidic; no basic PLA2 were detected. Minor toxin transcripts were related to L-amino acid oxidase, cysteine-rich secretory proteins, dipeptidylpeptidase IV, hyaluronidase, three-finger toxins and ohanin. Two non-toxic proteins, thioredoxin and double-specificity phosphatase Dusp6, showed high sequence identity to similar proteins from other snakes. In addition to the above features, single-nucleotide polymorphisms, microsatellites, transposable elements and inverted repeats that could contribute to toxin diversity were observed.
Bothrops alternatus venom gland contains the major toxin classes described for other Bothrops venoms based on trancriptomic and proteomic studies. The predominance of type PIII metalloproteinases agrees with the well-known hemorrhagic activity of this venom, whereas the lower content of serine proteases and C-type lectins could contribute to less marked coagulopathy following envenoming by this species. The lack of basic PLA2 agrees with the lower myotoxicity of this venom compared to other Bothrops species with these toxins. Together, these results contribute to our understanding of the physiopathology of envenoming by this species.
PMCID: PMC3017861  PMID: 20977763
21.  Evolutionary Analysis of Novel Serine Proteases in the Venom Gland Transcriptome of Bitis gabonica rhinoceros 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(6):e21532.
Serine proteases are major components of viper venom and target various stages of the blood coagulation system in victims and prey. A better understanding of the diversity of serine proteases and other enzymes present in snake venom will help to understand how the complexity of snake venom has evolved and will aid the development of novel therapeutics for treating snake bites.
Methodology and Principal Findings
Four serine protease-encoding genes from the venom gland transcriptome of Bitis gabonica rhinoceros were amplified and sequenced. Mass spectrometry suggests the four enzymes corresponding to these genes are present in the venom of B. g. rhinoceros. Two of the enzymes, rhinocerases 2 and 3 have substitutions to two of the serine protease catalytic triad residues and are thus unlikely to be catalytically active, though they may have evolved other toxic functions. The other two enzymes, rhinocerases 4 and 5, have classical serine protease catalytic triad residues and thus are likely to be catalytically active, however they have glycine rather than the more typical aspartic acid at the base of the primary specificity pocket (position 189). Based on a detailed analysis of these sequences we suggest that alternative splicing together with individual amino acid mutations may have been involved in their evolution. Changes within amino acid segments which were previously proposed to undergo accelerated change in venom serine proteases have also been observed.
Conclusions and Significance
Our study provides further insight into the diversity of serine protease isoforms present within snake venom and discusses their possible functions and how they may have evolved. These multiple serine protease isoforms with different substrate specificities may enhance the envenomation effects and help the snake to adapt to new habitats and diets. Our findings have potential for helping the future development of improved therapeutics for snake bites.
PMCID: PMC3123349  PMID: 21731776
22.  Dramatic expansion of the black widow toxin arsenal uncovered by multi-tissue transcriptomics and venom proteomics 
BMC Genomics  2014;15(1):366.
Animal venoms attract enormous interest given their potential for pharmacological discovery and understanding the evolution of natural chemistries. Next-generation transcriptomics and proteomics provide unparalleled, but underexploited, capabilities for venom characterization. We combined multi-tissue RNA-Seq with mass spectrometry and bioinformatic analyses to determine venom gland specific transcripts and venom proteins from the Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus) and investigated their evolution.
We estimated expression of 97,217 L. hesperus transcripts in venom glands relative to silk and cephalothorax tissues. We identified 695 venom gland specific transcripts (VSTs), many of which BLAST and GO term analyses indicate may function as toxins or their delivery agents. ~38% of VSTs had BLAST hits, including latrotoxins, inhibitor cystine knot toxins, CRISPs, hyaluronidases, chitinase, and proteases, and 59% of VSTs had predicted protein domains. Latrotoxins are venom toxins that cause massive neurotransmitter release from vertebrate or invertebrate neurons. We discovered ≥ 20 divergent latrotoxin paralogs expressed in L. hesperus venom glands, significantly increasing this biomedically important family. Mass spectrometry of L. hesperus venom identified 49 proteins from VSTs, 24 of which BLAST to toxins. Phylogenetic analyses showed venom gland specific gene family expansions and shifts in tissue expression.
Quantitative expression analyses comparing multiple tissues are necessary to identify venom gland specific transcripts. We present a black widow venom specific exome that uncovers a trove of diverse toxins and associated proteins, suggesting a dynamic evolutionary history. This justifies a reevaluation of the functional activities of black widow venom in light of its emerging complexity.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/1471-2164-15-366) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4058007  PMID: 24916504
RNA-Seq; Latrotoxins; Venom; Mass spectrometry; Transcriptomics; Spider
23.  New approaches & technologies of venomics to meet the challenge of human envenoming by snakebites in India 
The direct estimate of 46,000 snakebite deaths in India in 2005 (1 for every 2 HIV/AIDS deaths), based on verbal autopsies, renders unrealistic the total of only 47,000 snakebite deaths in the whole world in 2010, obtained indirectly as part of the “Global Burden of Disease 2010” study. Persistent underestimation of its true morbidity and mortality has made snakebite the most neglected of all the WHO's “neglected tropical diseases”, downgrading its public health importance. Strategies to address this neglect should include the improvement of antivenom, the only specific antidote to envenoming. To accommodate increased understanding of geographical intraspecific variation in venom composition and the range of snake species that are medically important in India, the design of antivenoms (choice of venom sources and species coverage) should be reconsidered. Methods of preclinical and clinical testing should be improved. The relatively new science of venomics involves techniques and strategies for assessing the toxin composition of snake venoms directly through proteomics-centred approaches or indirectly via high-throughput venom gland transcriptomics and bioinformatic analysis. Antivenomics is translational venomics: a proteomics-based protocol to quantify the extent of cross-reactivity of antivenoms against homologous and heterologous venoms. These approaches could revolutionize the preclinical assessment of antivenom efficacy, leading to a new generation of antivenoms that are clinically more effective.
PMCID: PMC3767246  PMID: 24056555
Antivenoms; cobra; envenoming; krait; preclinical efficacy; Russell's viper; snakebite; venom; venomics
24.  Serine Protease Variants Encoded by Echis ocellatus Venom Gland cDNA: Cloning and Sequencing Analysis 
Envenoming by Echis saw-scaled viper is the leading cause of death and morbidity in Africa due to snake bite. Despite its medical importance, there have been few investigations into the toxin composition of the venom of this viper. Here, we report the cloning of cDNA sequences encoding four groups or isoforms of the haemostasis-disruptive Serine protease proteins (SPs) from the venom glands of Echis ocellatus. All these SP sequences encoded the cysteine residues scaffold that form the 6-disulphide bonds responsible for the characteristic tertiary structure of venom serine proteases. All the Echis ocellatus EoSP groups showed varying degrees of sequence similarity to published viper venom SPs. However, these groups also showed marked intercluster sequence conservation across them which were significantly different from that of previously published viper SPs. Because viper venom SPs exhibit a high degree of sequence similarity and yet exert profoundly different effects on the mammalian haemostatic system, no attempt was made to assign functionality to the new Echis ocellatus EoSPs on the basis of sequence alone. The extraordinary level of interspecific and intergeneric sequence conservation exhibited by the Echis ocellatus EoSPs and analogous serine proteases from other viper species leads us to speculate that antibodies to representative molecules should neutralise (that we will exploit, by epidermal DNA immunization) the biological function of this important group of venom toxins in vipers that are distributed throughout Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent.
PMCID: PMC2949595  PMID: 20936075
25.  Transcriptome Analysis of Scorpion Species Belonging to the Vaejovis Genus 
PLoS ONE  2015;10(2):e0117188.
Scorpions belonging to the Buthidae family have traditionally drawn much of the biochemist’s attention due to the strong toxicity of their venoms. Scorpions not toxic to mammals, however, also have complex venoms. They have been shown to be an important source of bioactive peptides, some of them identified as potential drug candidates for the treatment of several emerging diseases and conditions. It is therefore important to characterize the large diversity of components found in the non-Buthidae venoms. As a contribution to this goal, this manuscript reports the construction and characterization of cDNA libraries from four scorpion species belonging to the Vaejovis genus of the Vaejovidae family: Vaejovis mexicanus, V. intrepidus, V. subcristatus and V. punctatus. Some sequences coding for channel-acting toxins were found, as expected, but the main transcribed genes in the glands actively producing venom were those coding for non disulfide-bridged peptides. The ESTs coding for putative channel-acting toxins, corresponded to sodium channel β toxins, to members of the potassium channel-acting α or κ families, and to calcium channel-acting toxins of the calcin family. Transcripts for scorpine-like peptides of two different lengths were found, with some of the species coding for the two kinds. One sequence coding for La1-like peptides, of yet unknown function, was found for each species. Finally, the most abundant transcripts corresponded to peptides belonging to the long chain multifunctional NDBP-2 family and to the short antimicrobials of the NDBP-4 family. This apparent venom composition is in correspondence with the data obtained to date for other non-Buthidae species. Our study constitutes the first approach to the characterization of the venom gland transcriptome for scorpion species belonging to the Vaejovidae family.
PMCID: PMC4319844  PMID: 25659089

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