Little is known about venom in young developmental stages of animals. The appearance of toxins and stinging cells during early embryonic stages in the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis suggests that venom is already expressed in eggs and larvae of this species. Here, we harness transcriptomic, biochemical and transgenic tools to study venom production dynamics in Nematostella. We find that venom composition and arsenal of toxin-producing cells change dramatically between developmental stages of this species. These findings can be explained by the vastly different interspecific interactions of each life stage, as individuals develop from a miniature non-feeding mobile planula to a larger sessile polyp that predates on other animals and interact differently with predators. Indeed, behavioral assays involving prey, predators and Nematostella are consistent with this hypothesis. Further, the results of this work suggest a much wider and dynamic venom landscape than initially appreciated in animals with a complex life cycle.Some animals produce a mixture of toxins, commonly known as venom, to protect themselves from predators and catch prey. Cnidarians – a group of animals that includes sea anemones, jellyfish and corals – have stinging cells on their tentacles that inject venom into the animals they touch.The sea anemone Nematostella goes through a complex life cycle. Nematostella start out life in eggs. They then become swimming larvae, barely visible to the naked eye, that do not feed. Adult Nematostella are cylindrical, stationary ‘polyps’ that are several inches long. They use tentacles at the end of their tube-like bodies to capture small aquatic animals. Sea anemones therefore change how they interact with predators and prey at different stages of their life. Most research on venomous animals focuses on adults, so until now it was not clear whether the venom changes along their maturation.Columbus-Shenkar, Sachkova et al. genetically modified Nematostella so that the cells that produce distinct venom components were labeled with different fluorescent markers. The composition of the venom could then be linked to how the anemones interacted with their fish and shrimp predators at each life stage.The results of the experiments showed that Nematostella mothers pass on a toxin to their eggs that makes them unpalatable to predators. Larvae then produce high levels of other toxins that allow them to incapacitate or kill potential predators. Adults have a different mix of toxins that likely help them capture prey.Venom is often studied because the compounds it contains have the potential to be developed into new drugs. The jellyfish and coral relatives of Nematostella may also produce different venoms at different life stages. This means that there are likely to be many toxins that we have not yet identified in these animals. As some jellyfish venoms are very active on humans and reef corals have a pivotal role in ocean ecology, further research into the venoms produced at different life stages could help us to understand and preserve marine ecosystems, as well as having medical benefits.
Columbus-Shenkar, Y. Y., Sachkova, M. Y., Macrander, J., Fridrich, A., Modepalli, V., Reitzel, A. M., … Moran, Y. (2018). Dynamics of venom composition across a complex life cycle. ELife, 7. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.35014