Essentially all the genes that constitute genetic makeup of any Eukaryot originally evolved for completely different role that they’re playing today. So if we want to uncover the history of life on Earth in its fullest, we should know what predisposes a gene to change function and how this change happens. The problem is, that most of those changes took place long time ago and it is almost impossible to reconstruct them. However there are several systems that evolved relatively recently or otherwise left enough evidence to trace their origin. That is the reason why we chose venom genes as our model to study gene neofunctionalization.
All venom genes evolved from a physiological gene via the change of expression pattern, structure and very often – copy number. And even though all venomous lineages of animals got their venoms independently, they all share a core profile of gene classes, like phospholipases or serine proteases. So while venom of a honey-bee has a dramatically different effect than that of a viper, they are very similar in terms of their components and evolutionary paths that led to their existence.
Currently we are using available genomes to figure out the evolution of snake venom genes. We are aiming to discover their non-toxic counterparts and trace duplication and mutation events that brought them here. We’re hoping that this project will shed light onto the evolution of genes in general for at some point in their evolutionary history all genes experienced a change of function.