Conotoxins, which are peptides consisting of 10 to 30 amino acid residues, typically have one or more disulfide bonds. Conotoxins have a variety of mechanisms of actions, most of which have not been determined. However, it appears that many of these peptides modulate the activity of ion channels. Over the last few decades conotoxins have been subject of pharmacological interest.
Conotoxins are hypervariable even within the same species; the genes that encode them act endogenously, and thus are less conserved and more likely to experience gene duplication events and nonsynonymous mutations which lead to the development of novel functions. These genes will experience less selection against mutations, and therefore mutations will remain in the genome longer, allowing more time for potentially beneficial novel functions to arise. Variability in conotoxin components reduces the likelihood that prey organisms will develop resistance; thus cone snails are under constant selective pressure to maintain polymorphism in these genes because failing to evolve and adapt will lead to extinction (Red Queen hypothesis).
Types of conotoxins also differ in the number and pattern of disulfide bonds. The disulfide bonding network, as well as specific amino acids in inter-cysteine loops, provide the specificity of conotoxins.
The number of conotoxins whose activities have been determined so far is five, and they are called the α(alpha)-, δ(delta)-, κ(kappa)-, μ(mu)-, and ω(omega)- types. Each of the five types of conotoxins attacks a different target:
ω-conotoxin inhibits N-type voltage-dependent calcium channels. Because N-type voltage-dependent calcium channels are related to algesia (sensitivity to pain) in the nervous system, ω-conotoxin has an analgesic effect: the effect of ω-conotoxin M VII A is 100 to 1000 times that of morphine. Therefore a synthetic version of ω-conotoxin M VII A has found application as an analgesic drug ziconotide (Prialt).
Omega, delta and kappa families of conotoxins have a knottin or inhibitor cystine knot scaffold. The knottin scaffold is a very special disulfide-through-disulfide knot, in which the III-VI disulfide bond crosses the macrocycle formed by two other disulfide bonds (I-IV and II-V) and the interconnecting backbone segments, where I-VI indicates the six cysteine residues starting from the N-terminus. The cysteine arrangements are the same for omega, delta and kappa families, even though omega conotoxins are calcium channel blockers, whereas delta conotoxins delay the inactivation of sodium channels, and kappa conotoxins are potassium channel blockers.
Different subtypes of voltage-gated sodium channels are found in different tissues in mammals, e.g., in muscle and brain, and studies have been carried out to determine the sensitivity and specificity of the mu-conotoxins for the different isoforms.
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