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The parallel origins of vertebrate venoms

By Agneesh Barua, Ivan Koludarov, Alexander S. Mikheyev

Posted 27 Apr 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.04.26.441528

Evolution can occur with surprising predictability when organisms face similar ecological challenges. How and why traits arise repeatedly remains a central question in evolutionary biology, but the complexity of most traits makes it challenging to answer. Reptiles and mammals independently evolved oral venoms consisting of proteinaceous cocktails that allow mapping between genotype and phenotype. Although biochemically similar toxins can occur as major venom components across many taxa, whether these toxins evolved via convergent or parallel processes remains unknown. Most notable among them are kallikrein-like serine proteases that form the core of most vertebrate oral venoms. We used a combination of comparative genomics and phylogenetics to investigate whether serine protease recruitment into the venom occurred independently or in parallel in mammalian and reptilian lineages. Using syntenic relationships between genes flanking known toxins, we traced the origin of kallikreins to a single locus containing one or more nearby paralogous kallikrein-like clusters. Independently, phylogenetic analysis of vertebrate serine proteases revealed that kallikrein-like toxins in mammals and reptiles are homologous. Given the shared regulatory and genetic machinery, these findings suggest a unified model underlying vertebrate venom evolution. Namely, the common tetrapod ancestor possessed salivary genes that were biochemically suitable for envenomation. We term such genes 'toxipotent' - in the case of salivary kallikreins they already had potent vasodilatory activity that was weaponized by venomous lineages. Furthermore, the ubiquitous distribution of kallikreins across vertebrates suggests that the evolution of envenomation may be more common than previously recognized, blurring the line between venomous and non-venomous animals.

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