The Rise and Fall of an Evolutionary Innovation: Contrasting Strategies of Venom Evolution in Ancient and Young Animals


<div><p>Animal venoms are theorized to evolve under the significant influence of positive Darwinian selection in a chemical arms race scenario, where the evolution of venom resistance in prey and the invention of potent venom in the secreting animal exert reciprocal selection pressures. Venom research to date has mainly focused on evolutionarily younger lineages, such as snakes and cone snails, while mostly neglecting ancient clades (e.g., cnidarians, coleoids, spiders and centipedes). By examining genome, venom-gland transcriptome and sequences from the public repositories, we report the molecular evolutionary regimes of several centipede and spider toxin families, which surprisingly accumulated low-levels of sequence variations, despite their long evolutionary histories. Molecular evolutionary assessment of over 3500 nucleotide sequences from 85 toxin families spanning the breadth of the animal kingdom has unraveled a contrasting evolutionary strategy employed by ancient and evolutionarily young clades. We show that the venoms of ancient lineages remarkably evolve under the heavy constraints of negative selection, while toxin families in lineages that originated relatively recently rapidly diversify under the influence of positive selection. We propose that animal venoms mostly employ a ‘two-speed’ mode of evolution, where the major influence of diversifying selection accompanies the earlier stages of ecological specialization (e.g., diet and range expansion) in the evolutionary history of the species–the period of expansion, resulting in the rapid diversification of the venom arsenal, followed by longer periods of purifying selection that preserve the potent toxin pharmacopeia–the period of purification and fixation. However, species in the period of purification may re-enter the period of expansion upon experiencing a major shift in ecology or environment. Thus, we highlight for the first time the significant roles of purifying and episodic selections in shaping animal venoms.</p></div

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