Centipede Venom Is A Cocktail Of Genetic Material Nicked From Bacteria And Fungi

Centipedes' fiercest weapons have unexpected origins. Image credit: Scolopendra morsitans centipede Eivind Undheim

If you’re unfamiliar with centipedes, one thing you should know about them is they’re mean as hell. Magnificent, complex creatures sure, but a mobile ruler with venom and a temper does not a cuddle buddy make. As expert predators, they really wake up every day and choose violence, killing prey 15 times their weight (TW, don’t click this link if you like rodents). Their venom is so effective that some centipedes in Venezuela can catch and kill flying bats that are far bigger than themselves.

New research published in the journal Nature Communications has now revealed that there’s something even more interesting about centipede venom than just how effective it is. Genetic analysis of the venom, led by expert in the field Dr Ronald Jenner from the Natural History Museum, London and colleague Dr Eivind Undheim from the University of Oslo and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has revealed for the first time that it contains weaponry in the form of toxic proteins borrowed from bacteria and fungi.

The astonishing discovery came about as part of a wider study in which Jenner and Undheim were exploring if proteins in centipede venoms had evolved anywhere on the tree of life outside of the arthropods, a group of funky critters with exoskeletons that centipedes firmly sit within. Sure enough, they found evidence of several proteins in centipede venoms emerging in bacteria and fungi, revealing their fiercest weapon is a cocktail of genetic information from completely unrelated species.

This kind of interspecies trading occurs through a phenomenon coined “horizontal gene transfer,” and it facilitates the movement of genetic material between distantly related organisms. It differs from vertical gene transfer, which is the more conventional movement of genetic material from an ancestor to a descendent.

Don't be fooled by those puppy dog eyes, these minibeasts mean business. Image credit: Dr Eivind Undheim

“This discovery is remarkable,” said Jenner in a statement emailed to IFLScience. “It reveals the largest, most diversely sourced contribution of horizontal gene transfer to the evolution of animal venom composition known to date.”

While it might seem a bit late in the game to be discovering such significant information on a venom we’ve known about for a while, centipedes have been a species of low priority when it comes to venom research owing to the fact it’s not dangerous to humans. This is likely to change, however, now that it’s finally been exposed as a poster species for horizontal gene transfer. That said, we’d still recommend giving these beasties a wide berth in the field.

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