Explorations on the ecological role of toxin secretion and delivery in jawless predatory Polychaeta

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Motivated by biotechnological prospects, there is increasing evidence that we may just be scraping the tip of the iceberg of poisonous marine invertebrates, among which the Polychaeta are promising candidates for bioprospecting. Here we show that an inconspicuous phyllodocid uses toxins in its uncanny feeding strategy. The worm, a jawless active predator characterised by its bright green colour, preys on larger invertebrates (including conspecifics) by extracting tissue portions with its powerful proboscis through suction. The animal is even able to penetrate through the valves and plates of live molluscs and barnacles. Observations in situ and a series of experiments demonstrated that the worm compensates its simple anatomy with secretion of a novel toxin, or mixture of toxins, referred to by us as "phyllotoxins". These are carried by mucus and delivered via repeated contact with the tip of the proboscis until the prey is relaxed or immobilised (reversibly). Proteolytic action permeabilises material to toxins and softens tissue to enable extraction by suction. The findings show that toxins are a major ecological trait and therefore play a key role in evolutionary success and diversification of Polychaeta, demonstrating also that understanding adaptative features may become the best showcase for novel animal toxins.

Original languageEnglish
Article number7635
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2018




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