The cnidarian parasite Ceratonova shasta utilizes inherited and recruited venom-like compounds during infection

PeerJ. 2021 Dec 15:9:e12606. doi: 10.7717/peerj.12606. eCollection 2021.


Background: Cnidarians are the most ancient venomous organisms. They store a cocktail of venom proteins inside unique stinging organelles called nematocysts. When a cnidarian encounters chemical and physical cues from a potential threat or prey animal, the nematocyst is triggered and fires a harpoon-like tubule to penetrate and inject venom into the prey. Nematocysts are present in all Cnidaria, including the morphologically simple Myxozoa, which are a speciose group of microscopic, spore-forming, obligate parasites of fish and invertebrates. Rather than predation or defense, myxozoans use nematocysts for adhesion to hosts, but the involvement of venom in this process is poorly understood. Recent work shows some myxozoans have a reduced repertoire of venom-like compounds (VLCs) relative to free-living cnidarians, however the function of these proteins is not known.

Methods: We searched for VLCs in the nematocyst proteome and a time-series infection transcriptome of Ceratonova shasta, a myxozoan parasite of salmonid fish. We used four parallel approaches to detect VLCs: BLAST and HMMER searches to preexisting cnidarian venom datasets, the machine learning tool ToxClassifier, and structural modeling of nematocyst proteomes. Sequences that scored positive by at least three methods were considered VLCs. We then mapped their time-series expressions in the fish host and analyzed their phylogenetic relatedness to sequences from other venomous animals.

Results: We identified eight VLCs, all of which have closely related sequences in other myxozoan datasets, suggesting a conserved venom profile across Myxozoa, and an overall reduction in venom diversity relative to free-living cnidarians. Expression of the VLCs over the 3-week fish infection varied considerably: three sequences were most expressed at one day post-exposure in the fish's gills; whereas expression of the other five VLCs peaked at 21 days post-exposure in the intestines, coinciding with the formation of mature parasite spores with nematocysts. Expression of VLC genes early in infection, prior to the development of nematocysts, suggests venoms in C. shasta have been repurposed to facilitate parasite invasion and proliferation within the host. Molecular phylogenetics suggested some VLCs were inherited from a cnidarian ancestor, whereas others were more closely related to sequences from venomous non-Cnidarian organisms and thus may have gained qualities of venom components via convergent evolution. The presence of VLCs and their differential expression during parasite infection enrich the concept of what functions a "venom" can have and represent targets for designing therapeutics against myxozoan infections.

Keywords: Cnidaria; Myxospore; Myxozoa; Nematocyst; Proteome; Toxin; Transcriptome; Venom.

Grants and funding

This research was supported by research grant no. IS-5001-17C from the United States-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development (BARD) Fund and research grant no. 2019063 from the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), Jerusalem, Israel. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.