Highly conserved and extremely variable: the paradoxical pattern of toxin expression revealed by comparative venom-gland transcriptomics of Phalotris (Serpentes: Dipsadidae)

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Although non-front fanged snakes account for almost two-thirds of snake diversity, most studies on venom composition and evolution focus exclusively on front-fanged species, which comprise most of the clinically relevant accidents. Comprehensive reports on venom composition of non-front fanged snakes are still scarce for several groups. In this study, we address such shortage of knowledge by providing new insights about the venom composition among species of Phalotris, a poorly studied Neotropical dipsadid genus. Phalotris are known for their specialized venom delivery system and toxic venoms, which can cause life-threatening accidents in humans. We evaluate the venom-gland transcriptome of Phalotris, comparing the following three South American species: P. reticulatus for the Araucaria Pine forests, P. lemniscatus for the Pampa grasslands, and P. mertensi for the Brazilian Cerrado. Our results indicate similar venom profiles, in which they share a high expression level of Kunitz-type inhibitors (KUNZ). On the other hand, comparative analyses revealed substantial differences in the expression levels of C-type lectins (CTL) and snake venom metalloproteinases (SVMP). The diverse set of SVMP and CTL isoforms shows signals of positive selection, and we also identified truncated forms of type III SVMPs, which resemble type II and type I SVMPs of viperids. Additionally, we identified a CNP precursor hosting a proline-rich region containing a BPP motif resembling those commonly detected in viperid venoms with hypotensive activity. Altogether, our results suggest an evolutionary history favoring high expression levels of few KUNZ isoforms in Phalotris venoms, contrasting with a highly diverse set of SVMP and CTL isoforms. Such diversity can be comparable with the venom variability observed in some viperids. Our findings highlight the extreme phenotypic diversity of non-front fanged snakes and the importance to allocate greater effort to study neglected groups of Colubroidea.
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