Sea lamprey studies show remarkably conserved gene expression patterns in jawless vs. jawed vertebrates
If you never understood what "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" meant in high school, don't worry: biologists no longer think that an animal's "ontogeny", that is, its embryonic development, replays its entire evolutionary history.
This shows the morphology of an adult sea lamprey (top); the ventral view of the unique oral disc, adapted for a parasitic lifestyle (bottom left); and a transient transgenic lamprey embryo (bottom right).
Credit: Image courtesy of Krumlauf Lab, Stowers Institute for Medical Research and Bronner Lab, California Institute of Technology
Instead, the new way to figure out how animals evolved is to compare regulatory networks that control gene expression patterns, particularly embryonic ones, across species. An elegant study published in the September 14, 2014 advance online issue of Nature from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research shows just how humbling and exhilarating that pursuit can be.
In the study, Investigator and Scientific Director Robb Krumlauf, Ph.D. and colleagues show that the sea lamprey Petromyzon marinus, a survivor of ancient jawless vertebrates, exhibits a pattern of gene expression that is reminiscent of its jawed cousins, who evolved much, much later. Those genes, called Hox genes, function like a molecular ruler, determining where along the anterior-posterior (AP) axis an animal will place a particular feature or appendage. The new study means that that the genetic program used by jawed vertebrates, including fish, mice, and us, was up and running ages before a vertebrate ever possessed a recognizable face.
"Hox genes regulate a tissue's character or shape, as in head or facial features. Our work in the past has addressed how factors make unique structures, for example, what makes an arm different from a leg," says Krumlauf. "Now, we are excited by the common role that similar sets of genes play in creating a basic structural plan."
The team at Stowers, collaborating with Marianne Bronner, Ph.D., professor of biology at Caltech, focused on the sea lamprey because the fossil record shows that its ancestors emerged from Cambrian silt approximately 500 million years ago, 100 million years before jawed fish ever swam onto the scene. The question was, could the hindbrain gene regulatory network that constructs the "modern" vertebrate head have originated in animals that lack those structures?
To answer it, the researchers created so-called "reporter" genes from stretches of regulatory DNA flanking a specific Hox gene in zebrafish or mice and linked them to fluorescent tags. When inserted into an experimental animal these types of reporters glow in tissues where the gene is activated, or "expressed". The researchers chose this particular battery of Hox reporters because when inserted in embryos of a jawed fish they fluoresce in adjacent rainbow stripes up and down the embryonic hindbrain.
The paper's startling finding came when they inserted the very same reporters into lamprey embryos using a technique developed by Hugo Parker, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Krumlauf lab and the study's first author: the lamprey embryos displayed the same rainbow pattern of Hox reporters as did jawed fish, in exactly the same order along the AP axis of the hindbrain.
"We were surprised to see any reporter expression in lamprey, much less a pattern that resembles the pattern in a mouse or fish," says Parker, who pioneered the lamprey reporter approach as a graduate student at London's Queen Mary University. "That means that the gene regulatory network that governs segmental patterning of the hindbrain likely evolved prior to divergence of jawed vertebrates."
Researchers knew that in mouse and zebrafish short stretches of DNA in one Hox reporter (Hoxb3) formed a landing pad recognized by a DNA-binding protein that flips on the gene. As you would expect, when inserted into zebrafish embryos, reporters mutant in those sequences were inactive (they didn't glow) in the hindbrain. Remarkably, the mutant reporter was inactive in lamprey embryos also, meaning that this control switch has been around for a very long time.
"These results suggest that regulatory circuits controlling hindbrain patterning were likely 'fixed in place' in ancient vertebrates," says Bronner. Some may find this surprising, as adult mammals (like us!) bear absolutely no resemblance to lampreys. "However, embryos of lamprey and other vertebrates show many striking similarities, so it makes sense that there are features common to all."
This study was funded by the Stowers Institute and by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R01NS086907 and R01DE017911). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.
About the Stowers Institute for Medical Research
The Stowers Institute for Medical Research is a non-profit, basic biomedical research organization dedicated to improving human health by studying the fundamental processes of life. Jim Stowers, founder of American Century Investments, and his wife, Virginia, opened the Institute in 2000. Since then, the Institute has spent over one billion dollars in pursuit of its mission.
Currently, the Institute is home to nearly 550 researchers and support personnel; over 20 independent research programs; and more than a dozen technology-development and core facilities.
Kim Bland | Eurek Alert!
Amputees can learn to control a robotic arm with their minds
28.11.2017 | University of Chicago Medical Center
The importance of biodiversity in forests could increase due to climate change
17.11.2017 | Deutsches Zentrum für integrative Biodiversitätsforschung (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
Tiny pores at a cell's entryway act as miniature bouncers, letting in some electrically charged atoms--ions--but blocking others. Operating as exquisitely sensitive filters, these "ion channels" play a critical role in biological functions such as muscle contraction and the firing of brain cells.
To rapidly transport the right ions through the cell membrane, the tiny channels rely on a complex interplay between the ions and surrounding molecules,...
The miniaturization of the current technology of storage media is hindered by fundamental limits of quantum mechanics. A new approach consists in using so-called spin-crossover molecules as the smallest possible storage unit. Similar to normal hard drives, these special molecules can save information via their magnetic state. A research team from Kiel University has now managed to successfully place a new class of spin-crossover molecules onto a surface and to improve the molecule’s storage capacity. The storage density of conventional hard drives could therefore theoretically be increased by more than one hundred fold. The study has been published in the scientific journal Nano Letters.
Over the past few years, the building blocks of storage media have gotten ever smaller. But further miniaturization of the current technology is hindered by...
With innovative experiments, researchers at the Helmholtz-Zentrums Geesthacht and the Technical University Hamburg unravel why tiny metallic structures are extremely strong
Light-weight and simultaneously strong – porous metallic nanomaterials promise interesting applications as, for instance, for future aeroplanes with enhanced...
An interdisciplinary group of researchers interfaced individual bacteria with a computer to build a hybrid bio-digital circuit - Study published in Nature Communications
Scientists at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) have managed to control the behavior of individual bacteria by connecting them to a...
Physicists in the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics (run jointly by LMU Munich and the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics) have developed an attosecond electron microscope that allows them to visualize the dispersion of light in time and space, and observe the motions of electrons in atoms.
The most basic of all physical interactions in nature is that between light and matter. This interaction takes place in attosecond times (i.e. billionths of a...
11.12.2017 | Event News
08.12.2017 | Event News
07.12.2017 | Event News
11.12.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
11.12.2017 | Earth Sciences
11.12.2017 | Information Technology