Identifying the genes behind venom production

New technique to revolutionize venom research.


Thanks to a new technique, determining the unique venom production of a wide range of venomous animals becomes possible in an animal-friendly manner. An international team of scientists has come up with an innovative, animal-friendly manner for studying venom genes.

Using this technique, scientists were able to find the blueprints for proteins in scorpion venom. The blueprints reveal the genes at play during venom production.

Scientists dubbed this technique transcriptomics. It allows scientists to examine patterns of gene expression. Unlike previous techniques for venom research, this new technique is far easier, purer, and more specific.

Scientists noted, “What makes this approach unique is that the technique has been successfully applied for the first time on the actual venom instead of on venom gland tissue. This means that animals no longer need to be sacrificed to study the gene expression of the venom gland. The method offers many new possibilities for venom research.”

Freek Vonk, professor at the VU and researcher at Naturalis, said, “Thanks to this technique, we can very precisely see which genes are active at various moments during the venom production. This snapshot offers the very first possibility to study how various influences, such as nutrition, season, and age, influence the venom production in a single individual.”

“It is now possible to investigate which variations exist in the venom and which factors can influence these variations. Every venom contains tens to more than hundreds of different venomous substances, also called toxins, produced by the venom gland. After a bite or sting, these can have a toxic effect on various systems, such as the nerve endings or blood circulation.”

Mátyás Bittenbinder, venom expert and Ph.D. student at Naturalis and the VU, said, “Venomous animals produce venom in different ways. Some animals, such as snakes and centipedes, have venom-producing cells that issue their venom to the storage space in the venom gland in small vesicles, which results in a relatively ‘clean’ venom.”

“Other animals, such as scorpions, allow their venom gland cells to be ‘cut off in pieces or even completely disintegrate in the venom storage space and therefore produce a venom that contains many cells remains. Those cell remains contain the substances on which we can perform transcriptomics: mapping which genes are activated to produce which proteins.”

Arie van der Meijden said“The manner of venom production probably explains why the new technique does not work on snakes. Conversely, the technique now makes it possible to study the venom variations in a large number of venomous animals that have scarcely ever, if at all, been studied, such as scorpions, fish, and even the platypus.”

“We can do even better research into how animals produce venom. And that is particularly useful; the toxins in the venom are an important source for finding new, potential drugs, such as drugs to treat cardiovascular diseases.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Freek J. Vonk, Matyas A. Bittenbinder et al. A non-lethal method for studying scorpion venom gland transcriptomes, with a review of potentially suitable taxa to which it can be applied. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0258712


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