A comprehensive portrait of the venom of the giant red bull ant, Myrmecia gulosa, reveals a hyperdiverse hymenopteran toxin gene family
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Ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) are diverse and ubiquitous, and their ability to sting is familiar to many of us. However, their venoms remain largely unstudied. We provide the first comprehensive characterization of a polypeptidic ant venom, that of the giant red bull ant, Myrmecia gulosa. We reveal a suite of novel peptides with a range of posttranslational modifications, including disulfide bond formation, dimerization, and glycosylation. One venom peptide has sequence features consistent with an epidermal growth factor fold, while the remaining peptides have features suggestive of a capacity to form amphipathic helices. We show that these peptides are derived from what appears to be a single, pharmacologically diverse, gene superfamily (aculeatoxins) that includes most venom peptides previously reported from the aculeate Hymenoptera. Two aculeatoxins purified from the venom were found to be capable of activating mammalian sensory neurons, consistent with the capacity to produce pain but via distinct mechanisms of action. Further investigation of the major venom peptide MIITX1-Mg1a revealed that it can also incapacitate arthropods, indicative of dual utility in both defense and predation. MIITX1-Mg1a accomplishes these functions by generating a leak in membrane ion conductance, which alters membrane potential and triggers neuronal depolarization. Our results provide the first insights into the evolution of the major toxin gene superfamily of the aculeate Hymenoptera and provide a new paradigm in the functional evolution of toxins from animal venoms.