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Natural Products

Cone snails lure prey with faux pheromones

Venom analysis also shows snails from shallow and deep waters may be separate species

by Celia Henry Arnaud
March 12, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 9

Photo of an imperial cone snail.
Credit: Samuel S. Espino
Venom of the cone snail includes mimics of the prey's pheromones.

Cone snails use venom when hunting their prey. While much is known about the peptides in cone snail venom, the small molecules it contains have until now not been well characterized—especially in those snails that hunt worms instead of fish. Eric W. Schmidt, Zhenjian Lin, and Joshua P. Torres of the University of Utah and coworkers have isolated and characterized small molecules found in the venom gland of the imperial cone snail, Conus imperialis (Sci. Adv. 2021, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abf2704). Two of the compounds, conazolium A and genuanine, mimic ovothiol A and urate, which are mating pheromones from Platynereis dumerilii worms. The worms usually hide in tubes and crevices. The researchers propose that the snails use these faux pheromones to draw the worms out where they can be caught. More research is needed to verify how the compounds fit into the snails’ hunting strategy, however. The researchers’ results also suggest that snails that dwell in deep and shallow waters are actually separate species. They were unable to isolate conazolium A from shallow-water C. imperialis specimens. Instead, those specimens produced neurotransmitters like serotonin in their venom, which implies that they have a different hunting strategy.

Structures of venom compounds conazolium A and genuanine and the worm phermones they mimic, ovothiol A and urate.
Conazolium A and genuanine, found in cone snail venom, mimic their prey's mating pheromones, ovothiol A and urate.


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