Isolation of a neurotoxin (alpha-colubritoxin) from a nonvenomous colubrid: evidence for early origin of venom in snakes

J Mol Evol. 2003 Oct;57(4):446-52. doi: 10.1007/s00239-003-2497-3.


The evolution of venom in advanced snakes has been a focus of long-standing interest. Here we provide the first complete amino acid sequence of a colubrid toxin, which we have called alpha-colubritoxin, isolated from the Asian ratsnake Coelognathus radiatus (formerly known as Elaphe radiata), an archetypal nonvenomous snake as sold in pet stores. This potent postsynaptic neurotoxin displays readily reversible, competitive antagonism at the nicotinic receptor. The toxin is homologous with, and phylogenetically rooted within, the three-finger toxins, previously thought unique to elapids, suggesting that this toxin family was recruited into the chemical arsenal of advanced snakes early in their evolutionary history. LC-MS analysis of venoms from most other advanced snake lineages revealed the widespread presence of components of the same molecular weight class, suggesting the ubiquity of three-finger toxins across advanced snakes, with the exclusion of Viperidae. These results support the role of venom as a key evolutionary innovation in the early diversification of advanced snakes and provide evidence that forces a fundamental rethink of the very concept of nonvenomous snake.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Chickens
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • Colubridae*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Muscles / drug effects
  • Neurotoxins / chemistry*
  • Neurotoxins / isolation & purification*
  • Neurotoxins / pharmacology
  • Phylogeny
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Snake Venoms / chemistry*


  • Neurotoxins
  • Snake Venoms