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An ancient, conserved gene regulatory network led to the rise of oral venom systems

OPEN Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America | 31 Mar 2021

A Barua and AS Mikheyev
Oral venom systems evolved multiple times in numerous vertebrates enabling the exploitation of unique predatory niches. Yet how and when they evolved remains poorly understood. Up to now, most research on venom evolution has focused strictly on the toxins. However, using toxins present in modern day animals to trace the origin of the venom system is difficult, since they tend to evolve rapidly, show complex patterns of expression, and were incorporated into the venom arsenal relatively recently. Here we focus on gene regulatory networks associated with the production of toxins in snakes, rather than the toxins themselves. We found that overall venom gland gene expression was surprisingly well conserved when compared to salivary glands of other amniotes. We characterized the “metavenom network,” a network of ∼3,000 nonsecreted housekeeping genes that are strongly coexpressed with the toxins, and are primarily involved in protein folding and modification. Conserved across amniotes, this network was coopted for venom evolution by exaptation of existing members and the recruitment of new toxin genes. For instance, starting from this common molecular foundation, Heloderma lizards, shrews, and solenodon, evolved venoms in parallel by overexpression of kallikreins, which were common in ancestral saliva and induce vasodilation when injected, causing circulatory shock. Derived venoms, such as those of snakes, incorporated novel toxins, though still rely on hypotension for prey immobilization. These similarities suggest repeated cooption of shared molecular machinery for the evolution of oral venom in mammals and reptiles, blurring the line between truly venomous animals and their ancestors.
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