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Open Access Research article

Assembling an arsenal, the scorpion way

Adi Kozminsky-Atias1, Adi Bar-Shalom1, Dan Mishmar1 and Noam Zilberberg12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Life Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva 84105, Israel

2 Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva 84105, Israel

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:333  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-333

Published: 16 December 2008

Abstract

Background

For survival, scorpions depend on a wide array of short neurotoxic polypeptides. The venoms of scorpions from the most studied group, the Buthida, are a rich source of small, 23–78 amino acid-long peptides, well packed by either three or four disulfide bridges that affect ion channel function in excitable and non-excitable cells.

Results

In this work, by constructing a toxin transcripts data set from the venom gland of the scorpion Buthus occitanus israelis, we were able to follow the evolutionary path leading to mature toxin diversification and suggest a mechanism for leader peptide hyper-conservation. Toxins from each family were more closely related to one another than to toxins from other species, implying that fixation of duplicated genes followed speciation, suggesting early gene conversion events. Upon fixation, the mature toxin-coding domain was subjected to diversifying selection resulting in a significantly higher substitution rate that can be explained solely by diversifying selection. In contrast to the mature peptide, the leader peptide sequence was hyper-conserved and characterized by an atypical sub-neutral synonymous substitution rate. We interpret this as resulting from purifying selection acting on both the peptide and, as reported here for the first time, the DNA sequence, to create a toxin family-specific codon bias.

Conclusion

We thus propose that scorpion toxin genes were shaped by selective forces acting at three levels, namely (1) diversifying the mature toxin, (2) conserving the leader peptide amino acid sequence and intriguingly, (3) conserving the leader DNA sequences.