Staff Profile of Dr Wolfgang Wüster
- Dr Wolfgang Wüster
- Senior Lecturer
- +44(0)1248 382301
- School of Natural Sciences, Bangor University, Deiniol Road, Bangor, Gwynedd, LL57 2UW, UK
Venomous snakes are among the organisms provoking the strongest emotions in humans, ranging from intense fascination to visceral revulsion. Some represent serious public health problems, and yet their venoms offer the prospect of developing new drugs against common medical conditions. All are scientifically fascinating, providing opportunities to study the evolution of a chemical weapon system, its role in the biology of the animal and its interactions with other occupants of the snake’s habitat. At the same time, we know surprisingly little about the biodiversity of venomous snakes, and new species are still being discovered on a regular basis.
My research interests focus on the causes of variation in venom composition within species and between closely related species, the origin and evolution of venom and venom toxin families, the biodiversity of venomous snakes, the wider impact of venom on the interactions between snakes and other biota, and the biogeographical history of different groups.
Since 2012: Senior Lecturer in Zoology, School of Biological Sciences, Bangor University
1999-2012: Lecturer n Zoology, School of Biological Sciences, Bangor University
1995-1999: Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, Bangor University
1994-1995: Postdoc, School of Biological Sciences, Bangor University
1990-1993: NERC Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Zoology, University of Aberdeen
1985-1986: Technician, MRC Radiobiology Unit, Harwell
PhD, 1990, University of Aberdeen: Population evolution of Asiatic cobras.
BA (Hons), II.1, 1985, Natural Sciences Tripos (Zoology), University of Cambridge.
Origin and evolution of snake venom and its consequences.
Snakes are unique among terrestrial vertebrates in possessing a chemical arsenal that, in at least some cases, allows them not only to increase their foraging success, but also to seriously injure or kill a potential predator. As such, this weapon system is likely to have had profound consequences for the evolution and diversification of snakes and their interactions with other organisms. Understanding the origin, continuing evolution and consequences of the biochemical arsenal of snakes is one of my main research goals, and follows three primary lines of investigation:
Origin of snake venom and venom toxins: using phylogenetic analysis of toxin amino acid sequences and related non-toxin genes allows the history of toxin gene families to be mapped on the phylogenetic tree of snakes. This has already lead to new insights into the origin of major toxin families (e.g., Fry & Wüster, Mol. Biol. Evol., 2004), the unexpectedly dynamic evolutionary model of toxin families (Casewell et al., Nature Comms., 2012) and the role of gene duplications and to co-opting of the pancreatic microRNA apparatus for the regulation of venom secretion (Vonk et al., PNAS, 2013).
Evolution of snake venom: venom composition varies at all taxonomic levels in snakes, and provides ample raw material to test hypotheses on the causes and consequences of snake venom variation. Compositional studies and experiments with natural prey have shown an association between snake venoms and diet composition (Daltry, Wüster & Thorpe, Nature, 1996; Barlow et al., Proc. R. Soc. London B, 2009; Richards et al., Toxicon, 2012). Advances in molecular genetics and proteomics now allow us to determine the mode of evolution of toxins and their impact on the activity of these toxins, and relate these to possible adaptive explanations. Current work also focusses on the role of gene flow and hybridisation as drivers of venom variation in rattlesnakes.
Impact of venom on snake evolution and diversification: this line of investigation on one hand use phylogenetics and comparative morphological studies to test hypotheses on the use and adaptive evolution of venom and the venom apparatus under different selective regimes (e.g., dietary differences), and the interactions between venomous snakes and their predators. In particular, field studies have demonstrated that mimicry of venomous snakes is not restricted to brightly coloured models, but that the less conspicuous but nevertheless characteristic patterns of some venomous snakes also protect them from predatory attack, demonstrating that the protective umbrella of mimicry encompasses a higher proportion of snake diversity than previously known (Wüster et al., Proc. R. Soc. London B, 2004).
Phylogeographic patterns and biogeography of tropical snakes
Comparing phylogeographic patterns across multiple co-distributed species complexes can reveal shared patterns that can test for commonality of cause for shared patterns. Molecular data are particularly powerful in biogeographical analysis since they allow the absolute timing of lineage splits to be estimated. Current projects include investigations of zoogeographic relationships between Australia and New Guinea (Wüster et al., Mol. Phylogenet. Evol., 2005), testing biogeographical hypotheses in the Amazon Basin (Wüster et al., Mol. Ecol., 2005), and the Middle East (Pook et al., Mol Phylogenet. Evol., 2009) and phylogeographic patterns in widespread African venomous snakes (Wüster et al., Mol. Phylogenet. Evol., 2007).
Systematic revisions of venomous snakes
Understanding the systematics and phylogeny of venomous snakes provides the essential underpinnings to all other work on these animals, and constitutes a fundamental first step towards the rationalisation of antivenom manufacture and use. Using molecular (mtDNA and AFLP) and advanced multivariate morphological methods, I am revising the systematics of several groups of medically important venomous snakes, including the saw-scaled vipers (Echis), African and Asiatic cobras (Naja), and several Australasian elapids (Acanthophis and Pseudechis). This work is leading to a radical re-assessment of the systematic of several species groups, and has led to the description of five new species, including three cobras.