Venom is a complex trait with substantial inter- and intraspecific variability resulting from strong selective pressures acting on the expression of many toxic proteins. However, understanding the processes underlying toxin expression dynamics that determine the venom phenotype remains unresolved. By interspecific comparisons we reveal that toxin expression in sea anemones evolves rapidly and that in each species different toxin family dictates the venom phenotype by massive gene duplication events. In-depth analysis of the sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis, revealed striking variation of the dominant toxin (Nv1) diploid copy number across populations (1-24 copies) resulting from independent expansion/contraction events, which generate distinct haplotypes. Nv1 copy number correlates with expression at both the transcript and protein levels with one population having a near-complete loss of Nv1 production. Finally, we establish the dominant toxin hypothesis which incorporates observations in other venomous lineages that animals have convergently evolved a similar strategy in shaping their venom.
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