Parasitic wasps use their venom to turn unsuspecting insects into incubators for their young, but it's unclear how such a diverse, widespread group of insects evolved specialized poison to hijack their hosts. A new study of wasps' venom-producing genes found they primarily code for something else, and that the insects lead a genetic double-life.
"Making venom is sort of their night job," John Werren, a biologist at University of Rochester and author on the study, tells Axios.
Why it matters: Across the spectrum of life, genes can quickly evolve entirely new functions. Venomous animals serve as good models because they're constantly evolving new venoms to out-compete their prey's immunity. New traits might evolve by co-opting existing genes more often than previously thought; the study shows that evolution occurs in more ways than we imagine, says Mrinalini, a venom biologist at the National University of Singapore and a study author,: "It gives us a new perspective on how we understand survival, disease, development, reproduction, and every other aspect of life."