Distinct regulatory networks control toxin gene expression in elapid and viperid snakes

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Venom systems are ideal models to study genetic regulatory mechanisms that underpin evolutionary novelty. Snake venom glands are thought to share a common origin, but there are major distinctions between venom toxins from the medically significant snake families Elapidae and Viperidae, and toxin gene regulation in elapids is largely unexplored. Here, we used high-throughput RNA-sequencing to profile gene expression and microRNAs between active (milked) and resting (unmilked) venom glands in an elapid (Eastern Brown Snake, Pseudonaja textilis ), in addition to comparative genomics, to identify cis - and trans - acting regulation of venom production in an elapid in comparison to viperids ( Crotalus viridis and C. tigris ). Although there is conservation in high-level mechanistic pathways regulating venom production, there are histone methylation, transcription factor, and microRNA regulatory differences between these two snake families. Histone methyltransferases (KMT2A, KMT2C and KMT2D) and transcription factor (TF) specificity protein 1 (Sp1) were highly upregulated in the milked elapid venom gland, whereas nuclear factor I (NFI) TFs were upregulated after viperid venom milking. Sp1 and NFI cis -regulatory elements were common to toxin gene promoter regions, but many unique elements were also present between elapid and viperid toxins. microRNA profiles were distinctive between milked and unmilked venom glands for both snake families, and microRNAs were predicted to target different toxin transcripts. Our comparative transcriptomic and genomic analyses between toxin genes and isoforms in elapid and viperid snakes suggests independent toxin evolution between these two snake families, demonstrating multiple toxin genes and regulatory mechanisms converged to underpin a highly venomous phenotype.

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