Seeing the Woods for the Trees: Understanding Venom Evolution as a Guide for Biodiscovery
Natural compounds have been utilised for medicinal purposes since ancient times. The toxic secretions of venomous animals have evolved over millions of years of evolutionary time to induce paralysis and systematic breakdown of homeostasis in prey, in addition to aiding in defence against predators. In the process, a remarkable arsenal of biochemical components has been developed, including toxins with astonishing specificity and affinity for various types of cells and receptors, many of which participate in essential physiological pathways. Hence, venoms and toxins have been perceived as rich sources of novel biochemical compounds for use in drug design and development. Although biased towards a narrow range of taxa, modern toxinological research has focussed on utilising these fascinating biochemical compounds not only in elucidating the intricate mechanisms of life but also in aiding the development of life-saving pharmaceutical drugs. Understanding the complex evolutionary mechanisms shaping different venom components is essential for the development of highly effective drugs. A multidisciplinary approach, spanning methods such as transcriptomics, proteomics, bioactivity testing and molecular evolution analyses, has the potential to unravel the true biodiversity of toxins and provide invaluable information for drug design and development.