Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Snake genomes and toxin evolution

How did toxin genes evolve from harmless physiological genes?

2015 - 2019
Michael Richardson
NWO Top sectors NWO Top sectors
Naturalis Biodiversity Center Naturalis Biodiversity Center

This project is characterizing the evolution and regulation of toxin genes using the genomes of major venomous snake species.

Snake venom consists of biologically active proteins that are encoded by several multigene toxin families. These toxin genes are genetically modified from normal body genes. In most cases this happens after duplication of the normal genes followed by recruitment into the venom. By sequencing snake genomes, we hope to gain insight into the duplication and recruitment process and the genomic organization of the toxin family genes. Previously a draft genome of the King Cobra (Elapidae) was generated by us, which gave us a first glance at toxin evolution in snakes. Currently we are working with our newly generated Malayan pit viper (Viperidae) genome. Not only will this give us an insight into the evolution of toxin genes in Viperidae, it will also enable us to compare the toxin genes between the Elapidae and Viperidae snake families. Very little is known about the regulation of the toxin genes, and why these genes are both expressed in the venom gland, and transcriptionally repressed in the rest of the body. With our new Malayan pit viper (Viperidae) genome we plan to study the regulatory elements of the toxin genes and their physiological counter parts. This should allow us to find key adaptations for the regulation of the toxin genes.

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