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Gene Expression In Alligators Suggests Birds Have 'Thumbs'

Date:
October 6, 2008
Source:
Public Library of Science
Summary:
The latest breakthrough in a 120 year-old debate on the evolution of the bird wing was just published. Bird wings only have three fingers, having evolved from remote ancestors that, like humans and most reptiles, had five fingers. Biologists have typically used embryology to identify the evolutionary origin (homology) of structures; the three fingers of the bird wing develop from cartilage condensations that are found in the same positions in the embryo as fingers two, three and four of humans (the index, middle and ring fingers). However, the morphology of the fingers of early birds such as Archaeopteryx corresponds to that of fingers one, two and three in other reptiles (thumb, index and middle finger).

Three levels to the avian digit homology problem: embryology, gene expression, and morphology.
Credit: Vargas et al., DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003325

The latest breakthrough in a 120 year-old debate on the evolution of the bird wing was published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, October 3, by Alexander Vargas and colleagues at Yale University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

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Bird wings only have three fingers, having evolved from remote ancestors that, like humans and most reptiles, had five fingers. Biologists have typically used embryology to identify the evolutionary origin (homology) of structures; the three fingers of the bird wing develop from cartilage condensations that are found in the same positions in the embryo as fingers two, three and four of humans (the index, middle and ring fingers).However, the morphology of the fingers of early birds such as Archaeopteryx corresponds to that of fingers one, two and three in other reptiles (thumb, index and middle finger). The fossil record clearly shows that fingers four and five (ring and pinky finger) were lost and reduced in the dinosaur ancestors of birds.

Further, the lack of expression of the HoxD-11 gene in the first finger of the wing makes it most similar to finger one (the "thumb") of the mouse, consistent with comparative morphology. However, the mouse is only distantly related to birds; crocodilians, in turn, are bird's closest living relatives.

To see whether the evidence from mouse HoxD-11 expression held up, Vargas and colleagues, working at the lab of Gunter Wagner at Yale, have examined the expression of this gene in alligators; they found the expression to be, as in mice, absent only in finger one (the "thumb").

Developmental and evolutionary biologists are familiar with the phenomenon of homeotic transformations, in which one structure begins to develop at a different position within the body. A famous example is the case of the fruitfly mutant antennapaedia, which develops legs on its head instead of antennae. The new work by Vargas et al. rekindles the hypothesis that a "hometic frameshift" occurred in the evolution of the bird wing, such that fingers one, two and three began to develop from the embryological positions of fingers two, three and four.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Public Library of Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Vargas et al. The Evolution of HoxD-11 Expression in the Bird Wing: Insights from Alligator mississippiensis. PLoS ONE, 2008; 3 (10): e3325 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003325

Cite This Page:

Public Library of Science. "Gene Expression In Alligators Suggests Birds Have 'Thumbs'." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 October 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081003122715.htm>.
Public Library of Science. (2008, October 6). Gene Expression In Alligators Suggests Birds Have 'Thumbs'. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 25, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081003122715.htm
Public Library of Science. "Gene Expression In Alligators Suggests Birds Have 'Thumbs'." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081003122715.htm (accessed January 25, 2015).

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