Background: Snake venoms generally show sequence and quantitative variation within and between species, but some rattlesnakes have undergone exceptionally rapid, dramatic shifts in the composition, lethality, and pharmacological effects of their venoms. Such shifts have occurred within species, most notably in Mojave (Crotalus scutulatus), South American (C. durissus), and timber (C. horridus) rattlesnakes, resulting in some populations with extremely potent, neurotoxic venoms without the hemorrhagic effects typical of rattlesnake bites.
Results: To better understand the evolutionary changes that resulted in the potent venom of a population of C. horridus from northern Florida, we sequenced the venom-gland transcriptome of an animal from this population for comparison with the previously described transcriptome of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (C. adamanteus), a congener with a more typical rattlesnake venom. Relative to the toxin transcription of C. adamanteus, which consisted primarily of snake-venom metalloproteinases, C-type lectins, snake-venom serine proteinases, and myotoxin-A, the toxin transcription of C. horridus was far simpler in composition and consisted almost entirely of snake-venom serine proteinases, phospholipases A2, and bradykinin-potentiating and C-type natriuretic peptides. Crotalus horridus lacked significant expression of the hemorrhagic snake-venom metalloproteinases and C-type lectins. Evolution of shared toxin families involved differential expansion and loss of toxin clades within each species and pronounced differences in the highly expressed toxin paralogs. Toxin genes showed significantly higher rates of nonsynonymous substitution than nontoxin genes. The expression patterns of nontoxin genes were conserved between species, despite the vast differences in toxin expression.
Conclusions: Our results represent the first complete, sequence-based comparison between the venoms of closely related snake species and reveal in unprecedented detail the rapid evolution of snake venoms. We found that the difference in venom properties resulted from major changes in expression levels of toxin gene families, differential gene-family expansion and loss, changes in which paralogs within gene families were expressed at high levels, and higher nonsynonymous substitution rates in the toxin genes relative to nontoxins. These massive alterations in the genetics of the venom phenotype emphasize the evolutionary lability and flexibility of this ecologically critical trait.