Interacting amino acid replacements allow poison frogs to evolve epibatidine resistance

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Animals that wield toxins face self-intoxication. Poison frogs have a diverse arsenal of defensive alkaloids that target the nervous system. Among them is epibatidine, a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) agonist that is lethal at microgram doses. Epibatidine shares a highly conserved binding site with acetylcholine, making it difficult to evolve resistance yet maintain nAChR function. Electrophysiological assays of human and frog nAChR revealed that one amino acid replacement, which evolved three times in poison frogs, decreased epibatidine sensitivity but at a cost of acetylcholine sensitivity. However, receptor functionality was rescued by additional amino acid replacements that differed among poison frog lineages. Our results demonstrate how resistance to agonist toxins can evolve and that such genetic changes propel organisms toward an adaptive peak of chemical defense.

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