by Joseph DeSisto
Scorpion venom, like many animal venoms, is incredible complex. It is made up of hundreds of different toxins and other proteins, each with a specific function, all mixed together in a lethal cocktail. Why do scorpions need so many different toxins? Last week, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences published the results of their attempt to answer this question (Zhang et al. 2015).
They began by studying a particular class of proteins found in scorpion venom, which work by attacking the sodium ion-channel proteins in their victims.
Sodium ion-channels help regulate the amount of sodium inside animal cells, which is vital for cells to function properly. In nerve cells, they are even more important: the change in sodium concentration inside and outside the cell is what transmits electric signals.
Toxins that inhibit sodium channels prevent the nervous system from working, which leads to death if the victim is small (like an insect). Scorpions have toxins called sodium-channel toxins to do exactly that. The puzzle is, scorpions have many different genes that produce sodium-channel toxins, each of which has a slightly different structure.
All proteins are essentially strings that are wound, twisted, and tied into a specific structure. The structure of a protein is critical to its function, since proteins need to have certain shapes in order to interact with each other like a lock and key. All sodium-channel toxins have a portion designated as the “interactive region” — the key — which attaches to a series of loops on the prey’s sodium ion-channel (the lock). If the key fits and the connection is successful, the prey’s ion-channel can no longer function.
Zhang and his colleagues studied the genome of their scorpion, a desert-dwelling East Asian species known as the Chinese golden scorpion (Mesobuthus martensii). They found no less than 29 different genes coding for sodium channel toxins.
There was a time, perhaps hundreds of millions of years ago, when scorpions only had one gene for sodium-channel toxins. Eventually that gene was duplicated, and thereafter the scorpion genome had multiple copies of the same toxin-producing gene. Since then, each copy of the gene has continued to mutate and evolve in its own direction. Now each toxin, despite having the same basic structure, is just a little bit different from the rest.
As it happens, the genes for sodium ion-channels in a scorpion’s prey also exist in multiple copies, each with minor variations. Zhang and colleagues hypothesized that scorpions need so many varieties of toxins because each toxin can only interact with a specific variety of ion-channel. In other words, scorpion venom needs lots of different keys because the prey have so many different locks.
To test this, the scientists examined the different toxin-gene copies to better understand how they had evolved. Sure enough, the “interactive region,” the key, of each toxin had mutated and evolved much more quickly than the “body” of the toxin. This provided strong evidence that natural selection has caused scorpion venom to evolve different types of toxins to keep up with the ever-evolving ion-channels in their prey.
Scorpions are incredible animals for so many reasons. They have been around for more than 400 million years — as long as there have been insects to hunt on land, scorpions have been there to hunt them. They are amazing and diverse in form, lifestyle, and hunting strategy. How fitting that they should be just as amazing on the molecular level.
Zhang S., B. Gao, and S. Zhu. Target-driven evolution of scorpion toxins. Nature Scientific Reports 5:14973 doi: 10.1038/srep14973