The venom glands of reptiles, particularly those of front-fanged advanced snakes, must satisfy conflicting biological demands: rapid synthesis of potentially labile and highly toxic proteins, storage in the gland lumen for long periods, stabilization of the stored secretions, immediate activation of toxins upon deployment and protection of the animal from the toxic effects of its own venom. This dynamic system could serve as a model for the study of a variety of different phenomena involving exocrine gland activation, protein synthesis, stabilization of protein products and secretory mechanisms. However, these studies have been hampered by a lack of a long-term model that can be propagated in the lab (as opposed to whole-animal studies). Numerous attempts have been made to extend the lifetime of venom gland secretory cells, but only recently has an organoid model been shown to have the requisite qualities of recapitulation of the native system, self-propagation and long-term viability (>1 year). A tractable model is now available for myriad cell- and molecular-level studies of venom glands, protein synthesis and secretion. However, venom glands of reptiles are not identical, and many differ very extensively in overall architecture, microanatomy and protein products produced. This Review summarizes the similarities among and differences between venom glands of helodermatid lizards and of rear-fanged and front-fanged snakes, highlighting those areas that are well understood and identifying areas where future studies can fill in significant gaps in knowledge of these ancient, yet fascinating systems.

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