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1.  Adaptive radiation of venomous marine snail lineages and the accelerated evolution of venom peptide genes 
An impressive biodiversity (>10,000 species) of marine snails (suborder Toxoglossa or superfamily Conoidea) have complex venoms, containing ca. 100 biologically active, disulfide-rich peptides. In the genus Conus, the most intensively investigated toxoglossan lineage (~500 species), a small set of venom gene superfamilies undergo rapid sequence hyperdiversification within their mature toxin regions. Each major lineage of Toxoglossa has its own distinct set of venom gene superfamilies. Two recently identified venom gene superfamilies are expressed in the large Turridae clade, but not in Conus. Thus, as major venomous molluscan clades expand, a small set of lineage specific venom gene superfamilies undergo accelerated evolution. The juxtaposition of extremely conserved signal sequences with hypervariable mature peptide regions is unprecedented and raises the possibility that in these gene superfamilies, the signal sequences are conserved as a result of an essential role they play in enabling rapid sequence evolution of the region of the gene that encodes the active toxin.
PMCID: PMC3488454  PMID: 22954218
venom peptides; accelerated evolution; Conidae; Turridae
2.  Against Expectation: A Short Sequence With High Signal Elucidates Cone Snail Phylogeny 
A short (259 nucleotide) conserved intronic sequence (CIS) is surprisingly informative for delineating deep phylogenetic relationships in cone snails. Conus species previously have been assigned to clades based on the evidence from mitochondrial 12S and 16S rRNA gene sequences (1129 bp). Despite their length, these genes lack the phylogenetic information necessary to resolve the relationships among the clades. Here we show that the relationships can be inferred from just 46 sites in the very short CIS sequence (a portion of “intron 9” of the γ-glutamyl carboxylase gene). This is counterintuitive because in short sequences sampling error (noise) often drowns out phylogenetic signal. The intron 9 CIS is rich in synapomorphies that define the divergence patterns among eight clades of worm- and fish-hunting Conus, and it contains almost no homoplasy. Parsimony, maximum-likelihood and Bayesian analyses of the combined sequences (mt rRNA + CIS) confirm most of the relationships among 23 Conus sequences. This phylogeny implies that fish-hunting behavior evolved at least twice during the history of Conus -once among New World species and independently in the Indo-Pacific clades.
PMCID: PMC3277786  PMID: 21147238
episodic evolution; conserved intron; Conus; evolution
3.  Characterization of a novel ψ-conotoxin from Conus parius Reeve 
The M-superfamily of conotoxins currently comprises three major groups of peptides (the μ-, κM-, and ψ-families) that share a key structural characteristic, the six-Cysteine motif CC-C-C-CC, but differ with respect to their molecular targets. The ψ-family consists of M-superfamily conotoxins that are nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) antagonists. To date, only two ψ-conotoxins, PIIIE and PIIIF, are known, both of which were isolated from a single Conus species, C. purpurascens. In this paper, we report the discovery and initial characterization of a ψ-conotoxin from another Conus species, C. parius, which we designated as PrIIIE. Its amino acid sequence, inferred from a cloned cDNA, differed significantly from those of PIIIE and PIIIF. Its bioactivity was investigated by using the synthetic form of the peptide in mice and fish bioassays. At 2.5 nmole, the synthetic peptide induced flaccid paralysis in goldfish in ca. 4 min but did not induce any remarkable behavior in mice (after i.c. and i.p. injection of up to 10 nmole of peptide) and did not block action potential in directly-stimulated frog muscle preparations. Electrophysiological experiments carried out to measure inhibition of ion currents through mouse nAChR receptors expressed in oocytes revealed that PrIIIE (IC50 ∼ 250 nM) was significantly more potent than PIIIE (IC50 ∼ 7000 nM) and that PrIIIE showed higher ihhibition potency against the adult-type than the fetal type nAChR. In similar electrophysiological assays, PrIIIE showed no inhibitory effects against the mouse muscle subtype Na+ channel isoform Nav 1.4. The discovery of this ψ-conotoxin from a Conus species that belongs to the subgenus Phasmoconus, which is distinct from and larger than the clade in which C. purpurascens belongs, suggests that greater structural and functional diversity of ψ-conotoxins remains to be discovered from the members of this subgenus.
PMCID: PMC2669105  PMID: 18054976
4.  Purification and characterization of a novel excitatory peptide from Conus distans venom that defines a novel gene superfamily of conotoxins 
An excitatory peptide, di16a, with 49 amino acids and ten cysteine residues was purified and characterized from the venom of Conus distans. Five AA residues were modified: one γ–carboxyglutamate (Gla), and four hydroxyproline (Hyp) residues. A cDNA clone encoding the precursor for the peptide was characterized; the peptide has a novel cysteine framework and a distinctive signal sequence that differs from any other conotoxin superfamily. The peptide was chemically synthesized and folded, and synthetic and native materials were shown to co-elute. Injection of the synthetic peptide causes a hyperexcitable phenotype in mice greater than three weeks of age at lower doses, and lethargy at higher doses. The peptide defines both a previously-uncharacterized gene superfamily of conopeptides, and a new Cys pattern with three vicinal Cys residues.
PMCID: PMC4492795  PMID: 18586046
Conus venom; Conus peptide; Conotoxin; γ–Carboxyglutamate; Hydroxyproline; Conus distans
5.  Interactions of Disulfide-deficient Selenocysteine Analogs of μ-Conotoxin BuIIIB with the Voltage-Gated Sodium Channel NaV1.3 
The FEBS journal  2014;281(13):2885-2898.
Inhibitors of the neuronal voltage-gated sodium channel subtype NaV1.3 are of interest as pharmacological tools for the study of neuropathic pain associated with spinal cord injury and have potential therapeutic applications. The recently described μ-conotoxin BuIIIB from Conus bullatus (μ-BuIIIB) was shown to block NaV1.3 with sub-micromolar potency (Kd = 0.2 μM), making it one of the most potent peptidic inhibitors of this subtype described to date. However, oxidative folding of μ-BuIIIB results in numerous folding isoforms, making it difficult to obtain sufficient quantities of the active form of the peptide for detailed structure-activity studies. Here we report the synthesis and characterization of μ-BuIIIB analogs incorporating a disulfide-deficient, diselenide-containing scaffold designed to simplify synthesis and facilitate structure-activity studies directed at identifying amino acid residues involved in NaV1.3 blockade. Our results indicate that, like other μ-conotoxins, the C-terminal residues (Trp16, Arg18 and His20) are most crucial for NaV1 block. At the N-terminus, replacement of Glu3 by Ala resulted in an analog with increased potency for NaV1.3 (Kd = 0.07 μM), implicating this position as a potential site for modification for increased potency and/or selectivity. Further examination of this position showed that increased negative charge, through γ-carboxyglutamate replacement, decreased potency (Kd = 0.33 μM), while replacement with positively-charged 2,4-diamonobutyric acid increased potency (Kd = 0.036 μM). These results provide a foundation for the design and synthesis of μ-BuIIIB-based analogs with increased potency against NaV1.3.
PMCID: PMC4160447  PMID: 24814369
Conotoxin; disulfide; neuropathic pain; selenocysteine; voltage-gated sodium channel
6.  Lobophorins with antimycobacterial activity from a turrid mollusk-associated Streptomyces sp 
The Journal of antibiotics  2013;67(1):121-126.
A novel lumun-lumun sampling methodology was used to obtain a large diversity of micromollusks, including the new species Lienardia totopotens. In turn, from L. totopotens we cultivated a Streptomyces sp. strain that contained new and known spirotetronate polyketides, lobophorins (1–5). The structures were elucidated using spectroscopy, and the compounds were evaluated for cytotoxicity to human cells and activity against Mycobacterium tuberculosis. A structure-activity relationship was discerned, wherein the lack of digitoxose in 1 led to lack of both cytotoxic and antibacterial activity. For compounds 2–5 both activities were in the low μM to mid nM range. Although this likely precludes their direct application in tuberculosis therapy due to possible poor therapeutic index, very slight changes in structure led to widely varying antibacterial:cytotoxicity ratios, providing a possible basis to synthesize more selective derivatives.
PMCID: PMC4470571  PMID: 24220110
antibiotics; cone snail; Mycobacterium tuberculosis; Streptomyces
7.  Comparison of the Venom Peptides and Their Expression in Closely Related Conus Species: Insights into Adaptive Post-speciation Evolution of Conus Exogenomes 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2015;7(6):1797-1814.
Genes that encode products with exogenous targets, which comprise an organism's “exogenome,” typically exhibit high rates of evolution. The genes encoding the venom peptides (conotoxins or conopeptides) in Conus sensu lato exemplify this class of genes. Their rapid diversification has been established and is believed to be linked to the high speciation rate in this genus. However, the molecular mechanisms that underlie venom peptide diversification and ultimately emergence of new species remain poorly understood. In this study, the sequences and expression levels of conotoxins from several specimens of two closely related worm-hunting species, Conus tribblei and Conus lenavati, were compared through transcriptome analysis. Majority of the identified putative conopeptides were novel, and their diversity, even in each specimen, was remarkably high suggesting a wide range of prey targets for these species. Comparison of the interspecific expression patterns of conopeptides at the superfamily level resulted in the discovery of both conserved as well as species-specific expression patterns, indicating divergence in the regulatory network affecting conotoxin gene expression. Comparison of the transcriptomes of the individual snails revealed that each specimen produces a distinct set of highly expressed conopeptides, reflecting the capability of individual snails to fine-tune the composition of their venoms. These observations reflect the role of sequence divergence and divergence in the control of expression for specific conopeptides in the evolution of the exogenome and hence venom composition in Conus.
PMCID: PMC4494072  PMID: 26047846
conotoxin; species-specific expression pattern; diversification; conopeptide
8.  Griseorhodins D–F, Neuroactive Intermediates and End Products of Post-PKS Tailoring Modification in Griseorhodin Biosynthesis 
Journal of Natural Products  2014;77(5):1224-1230.
The griseorhodins belong to a family of extensively modified aromatic polyketides that exhibit activities such as inhibition of HIV reverse transcriptase and human telomerase. The vast structural diversity of this group of polyketides is largely introduced by enzymatic oxidations, which can significantly influence the bioactivity profile. Four new compounds, griseorhodins D–F, were isolated from a griseorhodin producer, Streptomyces sp. CN48+, based upon their enhancement of calcium uptake in a mouse dorsal root ganglion primary cell culture assay. Two of these compounds, griseorhodins D1 and D2, were shown to be identical to the major, previously uncharacterized products of a grhM mutant in an earlier griseorhodin biosynthesis study. Their structures enabled the establishment of a more complete hypothesis for the biosynthesis of griseorhodins and related compounds. The other two compounds, griseorhodins E and F, represent new products of post-polyketide synthase tailoring in griseorhodin biosynthesis and showed significant binding activity in a human dopamine active transporter assay.
PMCID: PMC4039362  PMID: 24786728
In order to decode the roles that N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors play in excitatory neurotransmission, synaptic plasticity, and neuropathologies, there is need for ligands that differ in their subtype selectivity. The conantokin family of Conus peptides is the only group of peptidic natural products known to target NMDA receptors. Using a search that was guided by phylogeny, we identified new conantokins from the marine snail Conus bocki that complement the current repertoire of NMDA receptor pharmacology. Channel currents measured in Xenopus oocytes demonstrate conantokins conBk-A, conBk-B, and conBk-C have highest potencies for NR2D containing receptors, in contrast to previously characterized conantokins that preferentially block NR2B containing NMDA receptors. Conantokins are rich in γ-carboxyglutamate, typically 17–34 residues, and adopt helical structure in a calcium-dependent manner. As judged by CD spectroscopy, conBk-C adopts significant helical structure in a calcium ion-dependent manner, while calcium, on its own, appears insufficient to stabilize helical conformations of conBk-A or conBk-B. Molecular dynamics simulations help explain the differences in calcium-stabilized structures. Two-dimensional NMR spectroscopy shows that the 9-residue conBk-B is relatively unstructured but forms a helix in the presence of TFE and calcium ions that is similar to other conantokin structures. These newly discovered conantokins hold promise that further exploration of small peptidic antagonists will lead to a set of pharmacological tools that can be used to characterize the role of NMDA receptors in nervous system function and disease.
PMCID: PMC4000240  PMID: 24508768
NMDA antagonist; conus peptides; NR2D subunits; NMR structure; molecular modeling; molecular recognition; subtype-selective antagonist; glutamate receptors
10.  A marine analgesic peptide, Contulakin-G, and neurotensin are distinct agonists for neurotensin receptors: uncovering structural determinants of desensitization properties 
Neurotensin receptors have been studied as molecular targets for the treatment of pain, schizophrenia, addiction, or cancer. Neurotensin (NT) and Contulakin-G, a glycopeptide isolated from a predatory cone snail Conus geographus, share a sequence similarity at the C-terminus, which is critical for activation of neurotensin receptors. Both peptides are potent analgesics, although affinity and agonist potency of Contulakin-G toward neurotensin receptors are significantly lower, as compared to those for NT. In this work, we show that the weaker agonist properties of Contulakin-G result in inducing significantly less desensitization of neurotensin receptors and preserving their cell-surface density. Structure-activity relationship (SAR) studies suggested that both glycosylation and charged amino acid residues in Contulakin-G or NT played important roles in desensitizing neurotensin receptors. Computational modeling studies of human neurotensin receptor NTS1 and Contulakin-G confirmed the role of glycosylation in weakening interactions with the receptors. Based on available SAR data, we designed, synthesized, and characterized an analog of Contulakin-G in which the glycosylated amino acid residue, Gal-GalNAc-Thr10, was replaced by memantine-Glu10 residue. This analog exhibited comparable agonist potency and weaker desensitization properties as compared to that of Contulakin-G, while producing analgesia in the animal model of acute pain following systemic administration. We discuss our study in the context of feasibility and safety of developing NT therapeutic agents with improved penetration across the blood-brain barrier. Our work supports engineering peptide-based agonists with diverse abilities to desensitize G-protein coupled receptors and further emphasizes opportunities for conotoxins as novel pharmacological tools and drug candidates.
PMCID: PMC4322620  PMID: 25713532
Conus peptides; conotoxin; neuropeptides; neurotensin; neurotensin receptors; GPCRs; receptor internalization; pain
11.  Characterization of the peptidylglycine α-amidating monooxygenase (PAM) from the venom ducts of neogastropods, Conus bullatus and Conus geographus 
Cone snails, genus Conus, are predatory marine snails that use venom to capture their prey. This venom contains a diverse array of peptide toxins, known as conotoxins, which undergo a diverse set of posttranslational modifications. Amidating enzymes modify peptides and proteins containing a C-terminal glycine residue, resulting in loss of the glycine residue and amidation of the preceding residue. A significant fraction of peptides present in the venom of cone snails contain C-terminal amidated residues, which are important for optimizing biological activity. This study describes the characterization of the amidating enzyme, peptidylglycine α-amidating monooxygenase (PAM), present in the venom duct of cone snails, Conus bullatus and Conus geographus.
PAM is known to carry out two functions, peptidyl α-hydroxylating monooxygenase (PHM) and peptidylamido-glycolate lyase (PAL). In some animals, such as Drosophila melanogaster, these two functions are present in separate polypeptides, working as individual enzymes. In other animals, such as mammals and in Aplysia californica, PAM activity resides in a single, bifunctional polypeptide. Using specific oligonucleotide primers and reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction we have identified and cloned from the venom duct cDNA library, a cDNA with 49% homology to PAM from A. californica. We have determined that both the PHM and PAL activities are encoded in one mRNA polynucleotide in both C. bullatus and C. geographus. We have directly demonstrated enzymatic activity catalyzing the conversion of dansyl-YVG-COOH to dansyl-YV-NH2 in cloned cDNA expressed in Drosophila S2 cells.
PMCID: PMC4286251  PMID: 23994590
Posttranslational modification; Conotoxins; Peptidylglycine α-amidating; monooxygenase
12.  Novel venom peptides from the cone snail Conus pulicarius discovered through next-generation sequencing of its venom duct transcriptome 
Marine genomics  2012;5:43-51.
The venom peptides (i.e., conotoxins or conopeptides) that species in the genus Conus collectively produce are remarkably diverse, estimated to be around 50,000 to 140,000, but the pace of discovery and characterization of these peptides have been rather slow. To date, only a minor fraction have been identified and studied. However, the advent of next-generation DNA sequencing technologies has opened up opportunities for expediting the exploration of this diversity.
The whole transcriptome of a venom duct from the vermivorous marine snail C. pulicarius was sequenced using the 454 sequencing platform. Analysis of the data set resulted in the identification of over eighty unique putative conopeptide sequences, the highest number discovered so far from a Conus venom duct transcriptome. More importantly, majority of the sequences were potentially novel, many with unexpected structural features, hinting at the vastness of the diversity of Conus venom peptides that remains to be explored. The sequences represented at least 14 major superfamilies/types (disulfide- and non-disulfide-rich), indicating the structural and functional diversity of conotoxins in the venom of C. pulicarius. In addition, the contry-phans were surprisingly more diverse than what is currently known. Comparative analysis of the O-superfamily sequences also revealed insights into the complexity of the processes that drive the evolution and diversification of conotoxins.
PMCID: PMC4286325  PMID: 22325721
Conotoxin; Conopeptide; Toxin; Transcriptome
13.  Phylogeny of the Genus Turris: Correlating Molecular Data with Radular Anatomy and Shell Morphology 
There are over 10,000 species of venomous marine molluscs, the vast majority of these, which are generally referred to as “turrids”, are traditionally assigned to a single family, Turridae (Powell 1966). Here, we provide an initial molecular analysis of the type genus of the family, Turris Röding, 1798, thought to be among the most well characterized groups in the family. We show that the type genus is not monophyletic.
We analyzed specimens conventionally assigned to 9 different Turris species using molecular markers, combined with the shell morphology and radular anatomy whenever feasible. The results suggest that species assigned to the genus Turris, provisionally assigned to two different subgenera are not monophyletic. Five previously described species belong to the subgenus Turris (s.s.) Röding 1798: T. babylonia,(Linne, 1758), T. grandis, (J. E. Gray, 1834), T. dollyae, (Olivera, 1999), T. normandavidsoni (Olivera, 1999) and T. spectabilis (Reeve, 1843). With a change in species designation, T. assyria (formerlyT. babylonia1010) is added to a well-defined clade, which is in turn more closely related to Lophiotoma and Gemmula species than to the other five Turris species.
We show that these five species conventionally assigned to Turris do not belong in the same subgenus, and form a clade provisionally designated as Annulaturris Powell, 1966: T. annulata, (Reeve, 1843), T. undosa, (Lamarck, 1816), T. cristata, (Vera-Peláez, Vega-Luz, and Lozano-Francisco 2000) T. cryptorrhaphe (G. B. Sowerby, 1825) and T. nadaensis (Azuma, 1973). Implications of the molecular phylogenetic results and its correlation with radular morphology are discussed.
PMCID: PMC4201627  PMID: 21352932
Turris; Gemmula; Lophiotoma; radulae; molecular phylogeny; shell morphology; morphospecies
14.  Structure, dynamics and selectivity of the sodium channel blocker µ-conotoxin SIIIA†,‡ 
Biochemistry  2008;47(41):10940-10949.
µ-SIIIA, a novel µ-conotoxin from Conus striatus, appeared to be a selective blocker of tetrodotoxin-sensitive sodium channels in frog preparations. It also exhibited potent analgesic activity in mice, although its selectivity profile against mammalian sodium channels remained unknown. We have determined the structure of µ-SIIIA in aqueous solution and characterized its backbone dynamics by NMR and its functional properties electrophysiologically. Consistent with the absence of hydroxyprolines, µ-SIIIA adopts a single conformation with all peptide bonds in the trans conformation. The C-terminal region contains a well-defined helix encompassing residues 11–16, while residues 3–5 in the N-terminal region form a helix-like turn resembling 310 helix. The Trp12 and His16 side chains are in close proximity, as in the related conotoxin µ-SmIIIA, but Asn2 is further away. Dynamics measurements show that the N-terminus and Ser9 have larger magnitude motions on the sub-ns timescale, while the C-terminus is more rigid. Cys4, Trp12 and Cys13 undergo significant conformational exchange on µs - ms timescales. µ-SIIIA is a potent, nearly irreversible blocker of NaV1.2, but also blocks NaV1.4 and NaV1.6 with submicromolar potency. The selectivity profile of µ-SIIIA, including poor activity against the cardiac sodium channel, NaV1.5, is similar to that of the closely related µ-KIIIA, suggesting that the C-terminal regions of both are critical for blocking neuronal NaV1.2. The structural and functional characterization described in this paper of an analgesic µ-conotoxin that targets neuronal subtypes of mammalian sodium channels provides a basis for the design of novel analogues with an improved selectivity profile.
PMCID: PMC4201628  PMID: 18798648
15.  The Mammalian Neuronal Sodium Channel Blocker μ-Conotoxin BuIIIB has a Structured N-terminus that Influences Potency 
ACS chemical biology  2013;8(6):1344-1351.
Among the μ-conotoxins that block vertebrate voltage-gated sodium channels (VGSCs), some have been shown to be potent analgesics following systemic administration in mice. We have determined the solution structure of a new representative of this family, μ-BuIIIB, and established its disulfide connectivities by direct mass spectrometric collision induced dissociation fragmentation of the peptide with disulfides intact. The major oxidative folding product adopts a 1-4/2-5/3-6 pattern with the following disulfide bridges: Cys5-Cys17, Cys6-Cys23 and Cys13-Cys24. The solution structure reveals that the unique N-terminal extension in μ-BuIIIB, which is also present in μ-BuIIIA and μ-BuIIIC but absent in other μ-conotoxins, forms part of a short α-helix encompassing Glu3 to Asn8. This helix is packed against the rest of the toxin and stabilized by the Cys5-Cys17 and Cys6-Cys23 disulfide bonds. As such, the side chain of Val1 is located close to the aromatic rings of Trp16 and His20, which are located on the canonical helix that displays several residues found to be essential for VGSC blockade in related μ-conotoxins. Mutations of residues 2 and 3 in the N-terminal extension enhanced the potency of μ-BuIIIB for NaV1.3. One analog, [d-Ala2]BuIIIB, showed a 40-fold increase, making it the most potent peptide blocker of this channel characterized to date and thus a useful new tool with which to characterize this channel. Based on previous results for related μ-conotoxins, the dramatic effects of mutations at the N-terminus were unanticipated, and suggest that further gains in potency might be achieved by additional modifications of this region.
PMCID: PMC4201638  PMID: 23557677
16.  Structure of the analgesic μ-conotoxin KIIIA and effects on structure and function of disulfide deletion†,‡ 
Biochemistry  2009;48(6):1210-1219.
The μ-conotoxin μ-KIIIA, from Conus kinoshitai, blocks mammalian neuronal voltage-gated sodium channels (VGSCs) and is a potent analgesic following systemic administration in mice. We have determined its solution structure using NMR spectroscopy. Key residues identified previously as being important for activity against VGSCs (Lys7, Trp8, Arg10, Asp11, His12 and Arg14) all reside on an α-helix with the exception of Arg14. To further probe structure-activity relationships of this toxin against VGSC subtypes, we have characterised the analogue μ-KIIIA[C1A,C9A], in which the Cys residues involved in one of the three disulfides in μ-KIIIA were replaced with Ala. Its structure is quite similar to that of μ-KIIIA, indicating that the Cys1-Cys9 disulfide bond could be removed without any significant distortion of the α-helix bearing the key residues. Consistent with this, μ-KIIIA[C1A,C9A] retained activity against VGSCs, with its rank order of potency being essentially the same as that of μ-KIIIA, namely, NaV1.2 > NaV1.4 > NaV1.7 ≥ NaV1.1 > NaV1.3 > NaV1.5. Kinetics of block were obtained for NaV1.2, NaV1.4 and NaV1.7, and in each case both kon and koff values of μ-KIIIA[C1A,C9A] were larger than those of μ-KIIIA. Our results show that the key residues for VGSC binding lie mostly on an α-helix and that the first disulfide bond can be removed without significantly affecting the structure of this helix, although the modification accelerates the on- and off-rates of the peptide against all tested VGSC subtypes. These findings lay the groundwork for the design of minimized peptides and helical mimetics as novel analgesics.
PMCID: PMC4153535  PMID: 19170536
17.  A very short, functionally constrained sequence diagnoses cone snails in several Conasprella clades 
The traditional taxonomy of ca. 700 cone snails assigns all species to a single genus, Conus Linnaeus, 1758. However an increasing body of evidence suggest that some belong to a genetically distinct clade alternatively referred to as the Conasprella (Thiele, 1929), Previously we showed that a short (259 bp) conserved intronic sequence (CIS) of the γ-glutamyl carboxylase gene (intron 9) is surprisingly informative for delineating deep phylogenetic relationships among other Conus snails (Kraus, et al. 2011). In this work, we once again use intron 9 (338 bp) to easily resolve problemaric relationships among the Conasprellans. Counterintuitively, we show that these relationships can be inferred from just 39 synapomorphic isites. The sequence is so well conserved that conflicting sites do not obscure the few informative sites that provide clear phylogenetic signal.
Unexpectedly we also found that intron 9 unambiguously distinguishes Conasprella species from the Conus species studied earlier. The respective alignments are so different from one another that the sequences from the two groups cannot be aligned and thus a phylogeny describing the genetic relationship between the formerly desginated congeners cannot be inferred from these data alone. This lack of homology between the intronic sequences belonging to each group clearly shows that they are separated by considerable evolutionary history.
PMCID: PMC4153599  PMID: 22750110
nuclear genes; conserved intron; Conus; Conasprella; evolution
18.  Conantokins Derived from the Asprella Clade Impart ConRl-B, an NMDA Receptor Antagonist with a Unique Selectivity Profile for NR2B Subunits 
Biochemistry  2012;51(23):4685-4692.
Using molecular phylogeny has accelerated the discovery of peptidic ligands targeted to ion channels and receptors. One clade of venomous cone snails, Asprella, appears to be significantly enriched in conantokins, antagonists of N-Methyl D-Asparate receptors (NMDARs). Here, we describe the characterization of two novel conantokins from Conus rolani, including conantokin conRl-B that has shown an unprecedented selectivity for blocking NMDARs that contain NR2B subunits. ConRl-B shares only some sequence similarity to the most studied NR2B-selective conantokin, conG. The divergence between conRl-B and conG in the second inter-Gla loop was used to design analogs for structure-activity studies; the presence of Pro10 was found to be key to the high potency of conRl-B for NR2B, whereas the ε-amino group of Lys8 contributed to discrimination in blocking NR2B- and NR2A-containing NMDARs. In contrast to previous findings from Tyr5 substitutions in other conantokins, conRl-B [L5Y] showed potencies on the four NR2 NMDA receptor subtypes that were similar to those of the native conRl-B. When delivered into the brain, conRl-B was active in suppressing seizures in the model of epilepsy in mice, consistent with NR2B-containing NMDA receptors being potential targets for antiepileptic drugs. Circular dichroism experiments confirmed that the helical conformation of conRl-B is stabilized by divalent metal ions. Given the clinical applications of NMDA antagonists, conRl-B provides a potentially important pharmacological tool for understanding the differential roles of NMDA receptor subtypes in the nervous system. This work shows the effectiveness of coupling molecular phylogeny, chemical synthesis and pharmacology for discovering new bioactive natural products.
PMCID: PMC4153739  PMID: 22594498
Conus peptides; conantokin; NMDA antagonist; NR2B subunits; epilepsy; anticonvulsant
19.  Natural Products and Ion Channel Pharmacology 
Future medicinal chemistry  2010;2(5):731-744.
An accelerated rate of natural-product discovery is critical for the future of ion channel pharmacology. For the full potential of natural products to be realized, an interdisciplinary initiative is required that combines chemical ecology and ion channel physiology. A prime source of future drug leads targeted to ion channels is the vast assortment of compounds that mediate biotic interactions in the marine environment. Many animals have evolved a chemical strategy to change the behavior of their prey, predators or competitors, which appears to require a large set of ion-channel targeted compounds acting in concert. Some of these compounds (e.g. Ziconotide (Prialt)) have already found important biomedical applications. The elucidation of molecular mechanisms mediating biotic interactions should yield a rich stream of potent and selective natural products for the drug pipeline.
PMCID: PMC4153603  PMID: 21426200
20.  Neuroactive diol and acyloin metabolites from cone snail-associated bacteria 
The bacterium Gordonia sp. 647W.R.1a.05 was cultivated from the venom duct of the cone snail, Conus circumcisus. The Gordonia sp. organic extract modulated the action potential of mouse dorsal root ganglion neurons. Assay-guided fractionation led to the identification of the new compound circumcin A (1) and 11 known analogs (2–12). Two of these compounds, kurasoin B (7) and soraphinol A (8), were active in a human norepinephrine transporter assay with Ki values of 2575 and 867 nM, respectively. No neuroactivity had previously been reported for compounds in this structural class. Gordonia species have been reproducibly isolated from four different cone snail species, indicating a consistent association between these organisms.
PMCID: PMC3779075  PMID: 23880542
Natural product; symbiont; neuroassay
21.  Characterization of ConantokinRl-A: Molecular Phylogeny as Structure/Function Study# 
A multidisciplinary strategy for discovery of new Conus venom peptides combines molecular genetics and phylogenetics with peptide chemistry and neuropharmacology. Here we describe application of this approach to the conantokin family of conopeptides targeting NMDA receptors. A new conantokin from Conus rolani, ConRl-A, was identified using molecular phylogeny and subsequently synthesized and functionally characterized. ConRl-A is a 24-residue peptide containing three gamma-carboxyglutamic acid residues with a number of unique sequence features compared to conantokins previously characterized. The HPLC elution of ConRl-A suggested that this peptide exists as two distinct, slowly exchanging conformers. ConRl-A is predominantly helical (estimated helicity of 50%), both in the presence and absence of Ca++. The order of potency for blocking the four NMDA receptor subtypes by ConRl-A was NR2B>NR2D>NR2A>NR2C. This peptide has a greater discrimination between NR2B and NR2C then any other ligand reported so far. In summary, ConRl-A is a new member of the conantokin family that expands our understanding of structure/function of this group of peptidic ligands targeted to NMDA receptors. Thus, incorporating phylogeny in the discovery of novel ligands for the given family of ion channels or receptors is an efficient means of exploring the megadiverse group of peptides from genus Conus.
PMCID: PMC4136950  PMID: 20572027
Conantokin; Molecular phylogeny; Conformational interconversion; Helical peptide; Electrophysiology
22.  Distinct disulfide isomers of μ-conotoxins KIIIA and KIIIB block voltage-gated sodium channels 
Biochemistry  2012;51(49):9826-9835.
In the preparation of synthetic conotoxins containing multiple disulfide bonds, oxidative folding can produce numerous permutations of disulfide bond connectivities. Establishing the native disulfide connectivities thus presents a significant challenge when the venom-derived peptide is not available, as is increasingly the case when conotoxins are identified from cDNA sequences. Here, we investigate the disulfide connectivity of μ-conotoxin KIIIA, which was predicted originally to have a [C1-C9,C2-C15,C4-C16] disulfide pattern based on homology with closely-related μ-conotoxins. The two major isomers of synthetic μ-KIIIA formed during oxidative folding were purified and their disulfide connectivities mapped by direct mass spectrometric CID fragmentation of the disulfide-bonded polypeptides. Our results show that the major oxidative folding product adopts a [C1-C15,C2-C9,C4-C16] disulfide connectivity, while the minor product adopts a [C1-C16,C2-C9,C4-C15] connectivity. Both of these peptides were potent blockers of NaV1.2 (Kd 5 and 230 nM, respectively). The solution structure for μ-KIIIA based on NMR data was recalculated with the [C1-C15,C2-C9,C4-C16] disulfide pattern; its structure was very similar to the μ-KIIIA structure calculated with the incorrect [C1-C9,C2-C15,C4-C16] disulfide pattern, with an α-helix spanning residues 7–12. In addition, the major folding isomers of μ-KIIIB, an N-terminally extended isoform of μ-KIIIA identified from its cDNA sequence, were isolated. These folding products had the same disulfide connectivities as for μ-KIIIA, and both blocked NaV1.2 (Kd 470 and 26 nM, respectively). Our results establish that the preferred disulfide pattern of synthetic μ-KIIIA/μ-KIIIB folded in vitro is 1-5/2-4/3-6 but that other disulfide isomers are also potent sodium channel blockers. These findings raise questions about the disulfide pattern(s) of μ-KIIIA in the venom of Conus kinoshitai; indeed, the presence of multiple disulfide isomers in the venom could provide a means to further expand the snail's repertoire of active peptides.
PMCID: PMC4131687  PMID: 23167564
23.  Structurally-Minimized μ-Conotoxin Analogs as Sodium Channel Blockers: Implications for Designing Conopeptide-Based Therapeutics 
ChemMedChem  2009;4(3):406-414.
Disulfide bridges, which stabilize the native conformation of conotoxins impose a challenge in the synthesis of smaller analogs. In this work, we describe the synthesis of a minimized analog of the analgesic μ-conotoxin KIIIA that blocks two sodium channel subtypes, the neuronal NaV1.2 and skeletal muscle NaV1.4. Three disulfide-deficient analogs of KIIIA were initially synthesized in which the native disulfide bridge formed between either C1-C9, C2-C15 or C4-C16 was removed. Deletion of the first bridge only slightly affected the peptide’s bioactivity. To further minimize this analog, the N-terminal residue was removed and two non-essential Ser residues were replaced by a single 5-amino-3-oxapentanoic acid residue. The resulting “polytide” analog retained the ability to block sodium channels and to produce analgesia. Until now, the peptidomimetic approach applied to conotoxins has progressed only modestly at best; thus, the disulfide-deficient analogs containing backbone spacers provide an alternative advance toward the development of conopeptide-based therapeutics.
PMCID: PMC4074532  PMID: 19107760
conopeptide; conotoxin; sodium channels; backbone spacers; disulfide bridges
24.  Pharmacological fractionation of tetrodotoxin-sensitive sodium currents in rat dorsal root ganglion neurons by μ-conotoxins 
British Journal of Pharmacology  2013;169(1):102-114.
Background and Purpose
Adult rat dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons normally express transcripts for five isoforms of the α-subunit of voltage-gated sodium channels: NaV1.1, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8 and 1.9. Tetrodotoxin (TTX) readily blocks all but NaV1.8 and 1.9, and pharmacological agents that discriminate among the TTX-sensitive NaV1-isoforms are scarce. Recently, we used the activity profile of a panel of μ-conotoxins in blocking cloned rodent NaV1-isoforms expressed in Xenopus laevis oocytes to conclude that action potentials of A- and C-fibres in rat sciatic nerve were, respectively, mediated primarily by NaV1.6 and NaV1.7.
Experimental Approach
We used three μ-conotoxins, μ-TIIIA, μ-PIIIA and μ-SmIIIA, applied individually and in combinations, to pharmacologically differentiate the TTX-sensitive INa of voltage-clamped neurons acutely dissociated from adult rat DRG. We examined only small and large neurons whose respective INa were >50% and >80% TTX-sensitive.
Key Results
In both small and large neurons, the ability of the toxins to block TTX-sensitive INa was μ-TIIIA < μ-PIIIA < μ-SmIIIA, with the latter blocking ≳90%. Comparison of the toxin-susceptibility profiles of the neuronal INa with recently acquired profiles of rat NaV1-isoforms, co-expressed with various NaVβ-subunits in X. laevis oocytes, were consistent: NaV1.1, 1.6 and 1.7 could account for all of the TTX-sensitive INa, with NaV1.1 < NaV1.6 < NaV1.7 for small neurons and NaV1.7 < NaV1.1 < NaV1.6 for large neurons.
Conclusions and Implications
Combinations of μ-conotoxins can be used to determine the probable NaV1-isoforms underlying the INa in DRG neurons. Preliminary experiments with sympathetic neurons suggest that this approach is extendable to other neurons.
PMCID: PMC3632242  PMID: 23351163
μ-conotoxin PIIIA; μ-conotoxin SmIIIA; μ-conotoxin TIIIA; dorsal root ganglion; superior cervical ganglion; tetrodotoxin; voltage-gated sodium channel; whole-cell patch clamp
25.  Co-expression of NaVβ subunits alters the kinetics of inhibition of voltage-gated sodium channels by pore-blocking μ-conotoxins 
British Journal of Pharmacology  2013;168(7):1597-1610.
Background and Purpose
Voltage-gated sodium channels (VGSCs) are assembled from two classes of subunits, a pore-bearing α-subunit (NaV1) and one or two accessory β-subunits (NaVβs). Neurons in mammals can express one or more of seven isoforms of NaV1 and one or more of four isoforms of NaVβ. The peptide μ-conotoxins, like the guanidinium alkaloids tetrodotoxin (TTX) and saxitoxin (STX), inhibit VGSCs by blocking the pore in NaV1. Hitherto, the effects of NaVβ-subunit co-expression on the activity of these toxins have not been comprehensively assessed.
Experimental Approach
Four μ-conotoxins (μ-TIIIA, μ-PIIIA, μ-SmIIIA and μ-KIIIA), TTX and STX were tested against NaV1.1, 1.2, 1.6 or 1.7, each co-expressed in Xenopus laevis oocytes with one of NaVβ1, β2, β3 or β4 and, for NaV1.7, binary combinations of thereof.
Key Results
Co-expression of NaVβ-subunits modifies the block by μ-conotoxins: in general, NaVβ1 or β3 co-expression tended to increase kon (in the most extreme instance by ninefold), whereas NaVβ2 or β4 co-expression decreased kon (in the most extreme instance by 240-fold). In contrast, the block by TTX and STX was only minimally, if at all, affected by NaVβ-subunit co-expression. Tests of NaVβ1 : β2 chimeras co-expressed with NaV1.7 suggest that the extracellular portion of the NaVβ subunit is largely responsible for altering μ-conotoxin kinetics.
Conclusions and Implications
These results are the first indication that NaVβ subunit co-expression can markedly influence μ-conotoxin binding and, by extension, the outer vestibule of the pore of VGSCs. μ-Conotoxins could, in principle, be used to pharmacologically probe the NaVβ subunit composition of endogenously expressed VGSCs.
PMCID: PMC3605869  PMID: 23146020
μ-conotoxin KIIIA; μ-conotoxin PIIIA; μ-conotoxin SmIIIA; μ-conotoxin TIIIA; NaVβ-subunit; saxitoxin; site 1; tetrodotoxin; voltage-gated sodium channel; Xenopus oocytes

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