Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

How ancient whales lost their legs, got sleek and conquered the oceans

24.05.2006
When ancient whales finally parted company with the last remnants of their legs about 35 million years ago, a relatively sudden genetic event may have crowned an eons-long shrinking process.

An international group of scientists led by Hans Thewissen, Ph.D., a professor of anatomy at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, has used developmental data from contemporary spotted dolphins and fossils of ancient whales to try to pinpoint the genetic changes that could have caused whales, dolphins and porpoises to lose their hind limbs.

More than 50 million years ago the ancestors of whales and dolphins were four-footed land animals, not unlike large dogs. They became the sleek swimmers we recognize today during the next 15 million years, losing their hind limbs in a dramatic example of evolutionary change.

"We can see from fossils that whales clearly lived on land - they actually share a common ancestor with hippos, camels and deer," said team member Martin Cohn, Ph.D., a developmental biologist and associate professor with the UF departments of zoology and anatomy and cell biology and a member of the UF Genetics Institute. "Their transition to an aquatic lifestyle occurred long before they eliminated their hind limbs. During the transition, their limbs became smaller, but they kept the same number and arrangement of hind limb bones as their terrestrial ancestors."

In findings to be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists say the gradual shrinkage of the whales’ hind limbs over 15 million years was the result of slowly accumulated genetic changes that influenced the size of the limbs and that these changes happened sometime late in development, during the fetal period.

However, the actual loss of the hind limb occurred much further along in the evolutionary process, when a drastic change occurred to inactivate a gene essential for limb development. This gene - called Sonic hedgehog - functions during the first quarter of gestation in the embryonic period of the animals’ development, before the fetal period.

In all limbed vertebrates, Sonic hedgehog is required for normal limbs to develop beyond the knee and elbow joints. Because ancient whales’ hind limbs remained perfectly formed all the way to the toes even as they became smaller suggests that Sonic hedgehog was still functioning to pattern the limb skeleton.

The new research shows that, near the end of 15 million years, with the hind limbs of ancient whales nonfunctional and all but gone, lack of Sonic hedgehog clearly comes into play. While the animals still may have developed embryonic hind limb buds, as happens in today’s spotted dolphins, they didn’t have the Sonic hedgehog required to grow a complete or even partial limb, although it is active elsewhere in the embryo.

The team also showed why Sonic hedgehog became inactive and all traces of hind limbs vanished at the end of this stage of whale evolution, said Cohn. A gene called Hand2, which normally functions as a switch to turn on Sonic hedgehog, was shown to be inactive in the hind limb buds of dolphins. Without it, limb development grinds to a halt.

"By integrating data from fossils with developmental data from embryonic dolphins, we were able to trace these genetic changes to the point in time when they happened," Thewissen said.

"Studies on swimming in mammals show that a sleek body is necessary for efficient swimming, because projecting organs such as rudimentary hind limbs cause a lot of drag, and slow a swimmer down," said Thewissen, who spends about a month every year in Pakistan and India collecting fossils that document the land-to-water transition of whales.

Researchers say the findings tend to support traditional evolutionary theory, a la Charles Darwin, that says minor changes over vast expanses of time add up to big changes. And while Sonic hedgehog’s role in the evolution of hind limbs in ancient whales is becoming apparent, it is still not fully defined.

"It’s clear when ancient whales lost all vestiges of the limb it was probably triggered by loss of Sonic hedgehog," said Clifford Tabin, Ph.D., a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the research. "But it’s hard to say for certain because you’re looking at events long after they occurred. As they suggest, there could have been a continual decrease in Sonic as the limbs reduced until the modern version of the animal arrived."

The study itself, combining fossil and developmental data, is notable, Tabin said.

"Whales went through this remarkable transformation to become more like the ancestral fish," Tabin said. "Convergence of evolutionary studies and developmental genetics give us another piece in this growing tapestry of how genetic changes lead to morphological change. It is a remarkable process that was achieved simply and led to profound consequences in how whales were able to survive. Only now in the last five years are we developing this understanding of how the world of evolution is controlled genetically."

John D. Pastor | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.vpha.health.ufl.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht New technology offers fast peptide synthesis
28.02.2017 | Massachusetts Institute of Technology

nachricht Biofuel produced by microalgae
28.02.2017 | Tokyo Institute of Technology

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Safe glide at total engine failure with ELA-inside

On January 15, 2009, Chesley B. Sullenberger was celebrated world-wide: after the two engines had failed due to bird strike, he and his flight crew succeeded after a glide flight with an Airbus A320 in ditching on the Hudson River. All 155 people on board were saved.

On January 15, 2009, Chesley B. Sullenberger was celebrated world-wide: after the two engines had failed due to bird strike, he and his flight crew succeeded...

Im Focus: Breakthrough with a chain of gold atoms

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

Im Focus: DNA repair: a new letter in the cell alphabet

Results reveal how discoveries may be hidden in scientific “blind spots”

Cells need to repair damaged DNA in our genes to prevent the development of cancer and other diseases. Our cells therefore activate and send “repair-proteins”...

Im Focus: Dresdner scientists print tomorrow’s world

The Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and Technische Universität Dresden inaugurated their jointly operated Center for Additive Manufacturing Dresden (AMCD) with a festive ceremony on February 7, 2017. Scientists from various disciplines perform research on materials, additive manufacturing processes and innovative technologies, which build up components in a layer by layer process. This technology opens up new horizons for component design and combinations of functions. For example during fabrication, electrical conductors and sensors are already able to be additively manufactured into components. They provide information about stress conditions of a product during operation.

The 3D-printing technology, or additive manufacturing as it is often called, has long made the step out of scientific research laboratories into industrial...

Im Focus: Mimicking nature's cellular architectures via 3-D printing

Research offers new level of control over the structure of 3-D printed materials

Nature does amazing things with limited design materials. Grass, for example, can support its own weight, resist strong wind loads, and recover after being...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Booth and panel discussion – The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings at the AAAS 2017 Annual Meeting

13.02.2017 | Event News

Complex Loading versus Hidden Reserves

10.02.2017 | Event News

International Conference on Crystal Growth in Freiburg

09.02.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

New technology offers fast peptide synthesis

28.02.2017 | Life Sciences

WSU research advances energy savings for oil, gas industries

28.02.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Who can find the fish that makes the best sound?

28.02.2017 | Information Technology

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>