Kartik Sunagar

ksunagar's picture
Assistant Professor
Name: Kartik Sunagar
Affiliations (Departments/Programs): 
Centre for Ecological Sciences
Research Areas: 
Evolutionary Biology, Venom & Antivenom research, Genomics, Phylogenetics, Population genetics, Computational Biology, and Biodiscovery.
Biology and evolution of animal venoms; molecular mechanisms underpinning venom production, regulation and diversification; evolutionary origin of venom delivery apparatus (venom producing cells, glands and piercing structures); predator-prey evolutionary

I study animal venoms - nature’s most complex biochemical cocktails, to address broad and interesting questions relating to evolutionary biology, molecular genetics, and ecology. To date, I have investigated the venoms of animals across the breadth of the animal kingdom, including those of snakes, lizards, cnidarians – the first venomous animals (jellyfish, sea anemones, corals and hydras), scorpions, spiders, centipedes, vampire bats, and coleoids (octopus, cuttlefish and squids). I employ an interdisciplinary approach, spanning omics (transcriptomics, proteomics, genomics), bioinformatics and molecular biology to uncover the molecular and biochemical diversity and the fascinating evolutionary history of animal venoms.

By characterising the venoms of enigmatic animals from the remote corners of the world, such as the medically important snakes in the Middle East, the Antarctic octopus, neglected lineages of scorpions, snakes and lizards from the land down under, the New World vampire bats, the Old World Atractaspididae snakes, etc., my research has highlighted that the venom is much more widespread than previously acknowledged. I have unravelled several fascinating aspects of venomous animals and their venoms, including i) the ‘two-speed’ mode of venom evolution in the animal kingdom; ii) molecular mechanisms and the forces of natural selection underpinning the origin and diversification of venom proteins; iii) the highly predictable and parallel molecular evolution of resistance to cardiac glycosides - some of the most poisonous compouds known, across the animal kingdom; iv) differential selection pressures on toxin domains underpinning the evolution of novel biochemical functions; v) the biology, evolutionary origin and the genetic basis of development of cnidocytes - the first venom injecting cells in animals; vi) spatiotemporal variability in venoms (variation across cells, tissues and ontogenetic or developmental stages); vii) predation- and defence-specific venom cocktails in killer cone snails; viii) venom proteins as evolutionary relics in the salivary secretions of boas and pythons; and ix) the geographical variability in venoms and its impact on the efficiency of antivenoms.

Using state-of-the-art technologies across multiple disciplines, the Evolutionary Venomics Lab will strive to investigate the fascinating biology and evolution of venomous animals and their venoms. The major research interests of the lab will include i) molecular and functional characterization of snake venoms for developing novel and revolutionary snakebite therapy; ii) investigating the genetic basis of venom production, regulation, evolutionary origin and diversification; iii) understanding the evolutionary origin of venom resistance in prey and predators of venomous animals; iv) unravelling the biogeographical forces that have shaped the current distribution of venomous animals in the Indian subcontinent; v) understanding the population genetic structure of venomous animals and its impact on venom evolution; vi) evolutionary origin of the venom delivery systems; and vii) venom based biodiscovery / drug discovery.

Selected Publications: 

A complete list of publications can be found here (www.venomicslab.com/publications)

* Joint first author

Sunagar K and Moran Y. 2015. The rise and fall of an evolutionary innovation: contrasting strategies of venom evolution in ancient and evolutionarily young animals. PLoS Genetics 11:e1005596

Ujvari B*, Caswell NR*, Sunagar K*, Arbuckle K, Wüster W, Lo N, Conigrave AD, Mun H, O’Meally D, Beckmann C, King G, Deplazes E and Madsen T. 2015. Widespread convergence in toxin resistance by predictable molecular evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 112:11911-6

Sunagar K, Johnson WE, O’Brien SJ, Vasconcelos V and Antunes A. 2012. Evolution of CRISPs associated with toxicoferan-reptilian venom and mammalian reproduction. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 29:1807–1822.

Fry BG, Undheim EA, Ali SA, Jackson TN, Debono J, Scheib H, Ruder T, Morgenstern D, Cadwallader L, Whitehead D, Nabuurs R, van der Weerd L, Vidal N, Roelants K, Hendrikx I, Gonzalez SP, Koludarov I, Jones A, King GF, Antunes A, Sunagar K. 2013. Squeezers and leaf-cutters: differential diversification and degeneration of the venom system in toxicoferan reptiles. Molecular & Cellular Proteomics. 12:1881-1899.

Jouiaei M*, Sunagar K*, Federman Gross A, Scheib H, Alewood PF, Moran Y and Fry BG. 2015. Evolution of an ancient venom: recognition of a novel family of cnidarian toxins and the common evolutionary origin of sodium and potassium neurotoxins in sea anemone. Molecular biology and evolution. 32:1598-610.

Sunagar K*, Undheim EA*, Scheib H*, Gren E*, Cochran C*, Person C*, Koludarov I, Kelln W, Hayes W, King GF, Antunes A and Fry BG. 2014. Intraspecific venom variation in the medically significant Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri): Biodiscovery, clinical and evolutionary implications. Journal of Proteomics. 99:68-83

Brust A*, Sunagar K*, Vetter* I, Yang D*, Undheim E, Casewell N, Ruder T, Jackson T, Koludarov I, Alewood P, Hodgson W. C, Lewis R, King G. F, Antunes A and Fry BG. 2013. Differential evolution and neofunctionalization of snake venom metalloprotease domains. Molecular and Cellular Proteomics. 2:651–663.

Low D*, Sunagar K*, Undheim E*, Ali SA*, Alagon AC, Ruder T, Jackson T, Kurniawan N, Gonzalez SP, King GF, Antunes A and Fry B. G. 2013. Dracula’s Children: Molecular evolution of vampire bat venom. Journal of Proteomics. 89:95-111.

Sunagar K*, Undheim EA*, Chan AHC, Jackson TNW, Koludarov I, Muñoz-Gómez SA, Antunes A and Fry BG. 2013. Evolution stings: The origin and diversification of scorpion toxin peptide scaffolds. Toxins. 5:2456-2487.

The Origin and Evolution of the Toxicofera Reptile Venom System. B. G. Fry, K. Sunagar, N. R. Casewell, E. Kochva, K. Roelants, H. Scheib, W. Wüster, N. Vidal, B. Young, F. Burbrink, R. A. Pyron, F. J. Vonk, and T. N. W. Jackson. Venomous reptiles and their toxins: Evolution, pathophysiology and Biodiscovery. (B. G. Fry, ed.), Oxford Press, USA. p. 1-33


Department of Science & Technology - INSPIRE Faculty Award (2017-2021)

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Union (2015-17)

Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) from the Australian Research Council (2015). The University of Queensland, Australia (Not taken).

Editorial board member: Toxins (MDPI)

The PBC Fellowship Program for Outstanding Post-Doctoral Researchers from India (2014). The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

The Lady Davis postdoctoral fellowship (2014). The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel (Not taken).

Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) Doctoral fellowship (2010-2014). University of Porto, Portugal.