What is the origin of digits in birds? The question has long puzzled evolutionary biologists. Using genomic analysis, researchers have now solved a key part of this mystery.
Evolution adds and subtracts, and nowhere is this math more evident than in vertebrates, which are programmed to have five digits on each limb. But many species do not. Snakes, of course, have no digits, and birds have three.
Yale scientists now have a good handle on how these developmental changes are orchestrated in the embryo. But there is still one outstanding debate on birds: Which digits are they? A thumb with index and middle fingers, or the index, middle and ring fingers?
In five-digit vertebrates, the thumb comes from the precursor stem cells labeled pa. While birds have a digit that looks like a thumb, pa precursor cells die off during development and never produce a digit in adults. As a result, scientists have wondered whether precursor cells in pb can make a thumb.
Yale scientists have completed a genomic analysis of birds that reveals the answer. It is a hands-down "yes" -- even though the first bird digit develops where the index finger on a five-finger vertebrae should be.
The results are published online Sept. 4 in the journal Nature. Authors are Zhe Wang, Rebecca L. Young, Huiling Xue, and Gunter P. Wagner from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
- Zhe Wang, Rebecca L. Young, Huiling Xue, Günter P. Wagner. Transcriptomic analysis of avian digits reveals conserved and derived digit identities in birds. Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature10391
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