Venomics of Prey-Specialised Spiders in the Evolutionary and Ecological Context (SpecSpiderVenom)
Venoms of a wide range of animals are currently under scrutiny in the search for toxins that can be utilized as new bioactive compounds with potential medical and industrial applications. Venomous predators produce complex mixtures of bioactive components in their venoms, making them ideal candidates for a thorough investigation. Predatory toxins are usually very effective against certain prey as the result of evolutionary arms races. Many venomous animals are still understudied, including spiders, one of the most diversified groups of venomous predators. Prey-specialised spiders are particularly intriguing in this respect, as they preferentially feed on one prey type only, often represented by dangerous prey, such as ants, termites or other spiders. The current evidence suggests they immobilise prey with a potent venom. The aim of this project is to explore the venomic adaptations of those spiders from organismal to a molecular level, employing diverse methods that include behavioural experiments, venom potency bioassays, and proteo-transcriptomics. I will elucidate the venom composition of selected prey-specialised species and identify toxins with high selective efficiency. I want to analyse whether 1) prey-specialised spiders rely on their effective venoms to subdue their focal prey; 2) venoms of the specialised spiders are more efficient towards focal than to alternative prey; and 3) venom specificity is due to the presence of prey-specific highly potent venom compounds. Information on the venom properties will be put into ecological context to shed more light on the evolution of venomic adaptations in specialised predators. Furthermore, toxins of prey-specialised predators may be potentially useful as novel active ingredients of bio-pesticides due to their high specificity. My project will help to understand the mechanisms by which specialised venoms work, and could help in the development of environmentally safe bio-pesticides specifically targeting pests.