Toxicovenomics is the study of toxins according to their toxic effects in prey or victims and is a highly useful methodology for better understanding venoms as pharmacological targets for antitoxin development. In its simplest form, toxicovenomics combines the use of the Toxicity Score for establishing the medical importance of individual venom toxins and venomics. As an example of one of our own studies, we use toxicovenomics to identify the key toxins of medical importance in the black mamba.
The field of venomics involves the use of proteomics tools for the study of venoms. Following the venomics approach, venoms are fractionated, and the different fractions are analyzed by tandem mass spectrometry, which involves the digestion of the toxins by digestive enzymes and MALDI-TOF-TOF analysis of m/z ratio of the peptidic fragments obtained. Typically, the Mascot search engine is used to determine the identities of the proteins present in a given fraction. Alone, this enables the identification of all abundant toxins present in a given venom, but together with chromatographic data and SDS-PAGE densitometry, it is possible to estimate a quantitative proteome of venoms, where both identity and abundance is known for all major toxins. For the purpose of antivenom development, having a quantitative estimation of the venom proteomes for the snake species of interest is sufficient, since no exact venom composition exists for a given snake species due to individual venom variation. Furthermore, venom composition for some species has been observed to change over the lifetime of the snake (known as known as ontogenetic changes or variations), which may further complicate the picture and point towards the feasibility of using quantitative venom proteomes.
Venomics has been a field in great development, and there are now over 140 published venomics studies on various different venomous snakes. Integrative venomics combining several -omics tools is predicted to not only have a large positive impact on the understanding of venoms and their evolution, but also on how to develop more effective antivenoms.