Thoughts of the family tree may not be uppermost in the mind of a person suffering from a slipped disc, but those spinal discs provide a window into our evolutionary past. They are remnants of the first vertebrate skeleton, whose origins now appear to be older than had been assumed.
Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, have found that, unexpectedly, this skeleton most likely evolved from a muscle. The study, carried out in collaboration with researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Janelia Farm, USA, is published today in Science.
Humans are part of a group of animals called chordates, whose defining feature is a rod of cartilage that runs lengthwise along the middle of their body, under their spinal chord. This structure, called the notochord, was the first vertebrate skeleton.
It is present in human embryos, and is replaced with the backbone as we develop, with the cartilage reduced to those tell-tale discs. Since starfish, sea urchins and related animals have no such structure, scientists assumed the notochord had emerged in a relatively recent ancestor, after our branch of the evolutionary tree split away from the ‘starfish branch’.
“People simply haven’t been looking beyond our direct relatives, but that means you could be fooled, if the structure appeared earlier and that single group lost it,” says Detlev Arendt from EMBL, who led the study. “And in fact, when we looked at a broader range of animals, this is what we found.”
Antonella Lauri and Thibaut Brunet, both in Arendt’s lab, identified the genetic signature of the notochord – the combination of genes that have to be turned on for a healthy notochord to form. When they found that the larva of the marine worm Platynereis dumerilii has a group of cells with that same genetic signature, the scientists teamed up with Philipp Keller’s group at Janelia Farm to use state-of-the-art microscopy to follow those cells as the larva developed.
They found that the cells form a muscle that runs along the animal’s midline, precisely where the notochord would be if the worm were a chordate. The researchers named this muscle the axochord, as it runs along the animal’s axis. A combination of experimental work and combing through the scientific literature revealed that most of the animal groups that sit between Platynereis and chordates on the evolutionary tree also have a similar, muscle-based structure in the same position.
The scientists reason that such a structure probably first emerged in an ancient ancestor, before all these different animal groups branched out on their separate evolutionary paths. Such a scenario would also explain why the lancelet amphioxus, a ‘primitive’ chordate, has a notochord with both cartilage and muscle. Rather than having acquired the muscle independently, amphioxus could be a living record of the transition from muscle-based midline to cartilaginous notochord.
The shift from muscle to cartilage could have come about because a stiffened central rod would make swimming more efficient, the scientists postulate.
Policy regarding use
EMBL press and picture releases including photographs, graphics and videos are copyrighted by EMBL. They may be freely reprinted and distributed for non-commercial use via print, broadcast and electronic media, provided that proper attribution to authors, photographers and designers is made.
Sonia Furtado Neves | EMBL Research News
Barium ruthenate: A high-yield, easy-to-handle perovskite catalyst for the oxidation of sulfides
16.07.2018 | Tokyo Institute of Technology
The secret sulfate code that lets the bad Tau in
16.07.2018 | American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.
To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...
For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.
Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...
Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.
A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...
Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.
"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....
Ultra-short, high-intensity X-ray flashes open the door to the foundations of chemical reactions. Free-electron lasers generate these kinds of pulses, but there is a catch: the pulses vary in duration and energy. An international research team has now presented a solution: Using a ring of 16 detectors and a circularly polarized laser beam, they can determine both factors with attosecond accuracy.
Free-electron lasers (FELs) generate extremely short and intense X-ray flashes. Researchers can use these flashes to resolve structures with diameters on the...
13.07.2018 | Event News
12.07.2018 | Event News
03.07.2018 | Event News
16.07.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
16.07.2018 | Life Sciences
16.07.2018 | Earth Sciences