Matthew R. Fisher
The American Biology Teacher 84 (2), 60-67, (16 February 2022) https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2022.84.2.60
KEYWORDS: Coevolution, tetrodotoxin, newt, garter snake, mutation, Genetics, resistance, voltage-gated sodium channel, neurotoxin
Storytelling can stimulate learning by delivering scientific content within a narrative that increases comprehension and engagement. In this article I describe the coevolutionary arms race between toxic newts and predatory garter snakes. This engaging story centers on the use of a deadly neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin (TTX) as an antipredator defense. Some species of newts contain TTX in their tissues, but resistance to TTX has developed through convergent evolution in garter snakes and other species. TTX resistance results from mutated voltage-gated sodium channels. These channels, whether TTX resistant or not, are found in all animals and are vital to the function of nervous and muscle tissues. Through reciprocal selection, coevolution has created phenotypic matching between toxic newts and TTX-resistant garter snakes across their range in the western United States. In other words, as newts became more poisonous, garter snakes became more resistant. These results and the scientific process behind them are discussed in detail. This story can be used by educators to provide a unifying and engaging backdrop as students learn multiple aspects of biology, such as protein structure, genetics, phylogenetics, electrical signaling, evolution, and the process of science.