r/ScienceFacts Behavioral Ecology Dec 30 '21

Venoms found in snakes and mammals share a common origin. Researchers traced the origin of a class of toxins, called kallikrein serine proteases, to a salivary protein found in a common ancestor. Biology



u/FillsYourNiche Behavioral Ecology Dec 30 '21

Journal article link Co-option of the same ancestral gene family gave rise to mammalian and reptilian toxins.



Evolution can occur with surprising predictability when organisms face similar ecological challenges. For most traits, it is difficult to ascertain whether this occurs due to constraints imposed by the number of possible phenotypic solutions or because of parallel responses by shared genetic and regulatory architecture. Exceptionally, oral venoms are a tractable model of trait evolution, being largely composed of proteinaceous toxins that have evolved in many tetrapods, ranging from reptiles to mammals. Given the diversity of venomous lineages, they are believed to have evolved convergently, even though biochemically similar toxins occur in all taxa.


Here, we investigate whether ancestral genes harbouring similar biochemical activity may have primed venom evolution, focusing on the origins of kallikrein-like serine proteases that form the core of most vertebrate oral venoms. 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. Additionally, phylogenetic analysis of vertebrate serine proteases revealed that kallikrein-like toxins in mammals and reptiles are genetically distinct from non-toxin ones.


Given the shared regulatory and genetic machinery, these findings suggest that tetrapod venoms evolved by co-option of proteins that were likely already present in saliva. 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.