To dump a chunk of trunk

The Mammal has deemed that Hox genes and good old-fashioned feel-good evo-devo are a good way to blink back to life*. Also, tardigrades. Tardigrades are awesome. Here is one viewed from above, from the Goldstein lab via Encyclopedia of Life:


Tardigrades or water bears are also a bit unusual. Their closest living relatives are velvet worms (Onychophora) and arthropods. Exactly who’s closest to whom in that trio of phyla collectively known as the Panarthropoda is not clear, and I don’t have the energy to wade into the debate – besides, it’s not really important for the purposes of this post. What Smith et al. (2016) concluded about these adorably indestructible little creatures holds irrespective of their precise phylogenetic position.

Anyway. I said tardigrades were unusual, and I don’t mean their uncanny ability to survive the apocalypse and pick up random genes in the process (Boothby et al., 2015). (ETA: so apparently there may not be nearly as much foreign gene hoarding as the genome paper suggests – see Sujai Kumar’s comment below! Doesn’t change the fact that tardigrades are tough little buggers, though 🙂 ) The oddity we’re interested in today lies in the fact that all known species are built to the exact same compact body plan. Onychophorans and many arthropods are elongated animals with lots of segments, lots of legs, and often lots of variation in the number and type of such body parts. Tardigrades? A wee head, four chubby pairs of legs, and that’s it.

How does a tardigrade body relate to that of a velvet worm, or a centipede, or a spider? Based solely on anatomy, that’s a hell of a question to answer; even the homology of body parts between different kinds of arthropods can be difficult to determine. I have so far remained stubbornly uneducated on the minutiae of (pan)arthropod segment homologies, although I do see papers purporting to match brain parts, appendages and suchlike between different kinds of creepy-crawlies on a fairly regular basis. Shame on me for not being able to care about the details, I guess – but the frequency with which the subject comes up suggests that the debate is far from over.

Now, when I was first drawn to the evo-devo field, one of the biggest attractions was the notion that the expression of genes as a body part forms can tell us what that body part really is even when anatomical clues are less than clear. That, of course, is too good to be simply true, but sometimes the lure of genes and neat homology stories is just too hard to resist. Smith et al.‘s investigation of tardigrade Hox genes is definitely that kind of story.

Hox genes are generally a good place to look if you’re trying to decipher body regions, since their more or less neat, orderly expression patterns are remarkably conserved between very distantly related animals (they are probably as old as the Bilateria, to be precise). A polychaete worm, a vertebrate and an arthropod show the same general pattern – there is no active Hox gene at the very front of the embryo, then Hoxes 1, 2, 3 and so on appear in roughly that order, all the way to the rear end. There are variations in the pattern – e.g. the expression of a gene can have sharp boundaries or fade in and out gradually; different genes can overlap to different extents, the order isn’t always perfect, etc. – but staggered Hox gene expression domains, with the same genes starting up in the same general area along the main body axis, can be found all across the Bilateria.

Tardigrades are no exception, in a sense – but they are also quite exceptional. First, their complement of Hox genes is a bit of a mess. At long last, we have a tardigrade genome to hand, in which Smith et al. (2016) found good honest Hox genes. What they didn’t find was a Hox cluster, an orderly series of Hox genes sitting like beads on a DNA string. Instead, the Hox genes in Hypsibius dujardini, the sequenced species, are all over the genome, associating with all kinds of dubious fellows who aren’t Hoxes.

What Smith et al. also didn’t find was half of the Hox genes they expected. A typical arthropod has ten or so Hox genes, a pretty standard ballpark for an animal that isn’t a vertebrate. H. dujardini has only seven, three of which are triplicates of Abdominal-B, a gene that normally exists in a single copy in arthropods. So basically, only five kinds of Hox gene – number two and most of the “middle” ones are missing. What’s more, two more tardigrades that aren’t closely related to H. dujardini also appear to have the same five Hox gene types (though only one Abd-B each), so this massive loss is probably a common feature of Tardigrada. (No word on whether the scattering of the Hox  cluster is also shared by the other two species.)

We know that the genes are scattered and decimated, but are their expression patterns similarly disrupted? You don’t actually need an intact Hox cluster for orderly Hox expression, and indeed, tardigrade Hox genes are activated in a perfectly neat and perfectly usual pattern that resembles what you see in their panarthropod cousins. Except for the bit where half the pattern is missing!

Here’s part of Figure 4 from the paper, a schematic comparison of tardigrade Hox expression to that of other panarthropods – a generic arachnid, a millipede and a velvet worm. (otd is a “head” gene that lives in the Hox-free anterior region; lab is the arthropod equivalent of Hox1, Dfd is Hox4, and I’m not sure which of Hox6-8 ftz is currently supposed to be.) The interesting thing about this is that according to Hox genes, the entire body of the tardigrade corresponds to just the front end of arthropods and velvet worms.


In addition, one thing that is not shown on this diagram is that Abdominal-B, which normally marks the butt end of the animal, is still active in the tardigrade, predictably in the last segment (L4, that is). So if you take the Hox data at face value, a tardigrade is the arse end of an arthropod tacked straight onto its head. Weird. It’s like evolution took a perfectly ordinary velvet worm-like creature and chopped out most of its trunk.

The tardigrade data suggest that the original panarthropod was probably more like arthropods and velvet worms than tardigrades – an elongated animal with many segments. The strange tardigrade situation can’t be the ancestral one, since the Hox genes that tardigrades lack long predate the panarthropod ancestor. Now, it might be possible to lose half your Hox genes while keeping your ancestral body plan, but an unusual body plan and an unusual set of Hox genes is a bit of a big coincidence, innit?

Smith et al. point out that the loss of the Hox genes was unlikely to be the cause of the loss of the trunk region – Hox genes only specify what grows on a segment, they don’t have much say in how many segments develop in the first place. Instead, the authors reason, the loss of the trunk in the tardigrade ancestor probably made the relevant Hox genes dispensable.

Damn, this story makes me want to see the Hox genes of all those oddball lobopodians from the Cambrian. Some of them are bound to be tardigrade relatives, right?



Boothby TC et al. (2015) Evidence for extensive horizontal gene transfer from the draft genome of a tardigrade. PNAS 112:15976-15981

Smith FW et al. (2016) The compact body plan of tardigrades evolved by the loss of a large body region. Current Biology 26:224-229


*The Mammal has been pretty depressed lately. As in mired up to her head in weird energy-sucking flu. Unfortunately, writing is one of those things that the damn brain monster has eaten most of the fun out of. Also, I have a shitty normal person job at the moment, and shitty job taking up time + barely enough motivation to crawl out of bed and pretend to be human means I have, at best, one afternoon per week that I actually spend on catching up with science. That is just enough to scroll through my feeds and file away the interesting stuff, but woefully insufficient for the writing of posts, not to mention that my ability to concentrate is, to be terribly technical, absolutely fucked. It’s not an ideal state of affairs by any stretch, and I’m pretty sure that if I made more of an effort to read and write about cool things, it would pay off in the mental health department, but
 well. That sort of reasonable advice is hard to hear with the oozing fog-grey suckers of that thing clamped onto my brain.

Hi, real world, again!

The Mammal has emerged from a thesis-induced supermassive black hole and a Christmas-induced food coma, only to find that in the month or so that she spent barely functional and buried in chapters covered in the supervisor’s dreaded Red Pen, things actually happened in the world outside. This, naturally, manifested in thousands of items feeling thoroughly neglected in RSS readers and email inboxes. (Jesus. How many times have I vowed never to neglect my RSS feed again? Oh well, it’s not like unemployment is such a busy occupation that I can’t deal with a measly two and a half thousand articles 😛 )

… earlier tonight, the paragraph here said I wasn’t doing a proper post yet, “just pointing out” a couple of the cooler things I’ve missed. Then somehow this thing morphed into a 1000+ word post that goes way beyond “pointing things out”. It’s almost like I’ve been itching to write something that isn’t my thesis. >_>

So the first cool thing I wanted to “point out” is the genome paper of the centipede Strigamia maritima, which is a rather nondescript little beast hiding under rocks on the coasts of Northwest Europe. This is the first sequenced genome of a myriapod – the last great class of arthropods to remain untouched by the genome sequencing craze after many genomes from insects, crustaceans and chelicerates (spiders, mites and co.).  The genome sequence itself has been available for years (yay!), but its “official” paper (Chipman et al., 2014) is just recently out.

Part of the appeal of Strigamia – and myriapods in general – is that they are considered evolutionarily conservative for an arthropod. In some respects, the genome analysis confirms this. Compared to its inferred common ancestor with us, Strigamia has lost fewer genes than insects, for example. Quite a lot of its genes are also linked together similarly to their equivalents in distantly related animals, indicating relatively little rearrangement in the last 600 million years or so. But this otherwise conservative genome also has at least one really unique feature.

Specifically, this centipede – which is blind – has not only lost every bit of DNA coding for known light-sensing proteins, but also all known genes specific to the circadian clock. In other animals, genes like clock and period mutually regulate one another in a way that makes the abundance of each gene product oscillate in a regular manner (this is about the simplest graphical representation I could find…). The clock runs on a roughly daily cycle all by itself, but it’s also connected to external light via the aforementioned light-sensing proteins, so we can constantly adjust our internal rhythms according to real day-night cycles.

There are many blind animals, and many that live underground or otherwise find day and night kind of irrelevant, but even these are often found to have a functioning circadian clock or keep some photoreceptor genes around. However, based on the genome data, our favourite centipede may be the first to have completely lost both. The authors of the genome paper hypothesise that this may be related to the length of evolutionary time the animals have spent without light. Things like mole rats are relatively recent “inventions”. However, the geophilomorph order of centipedes, to which Strigamia belongs, is quite old (its most likely sister group is known from the Carboniferous, so they’re probably at least that ancient). Living geophilomorphs are all blind, so chances are they’ve been that way for the last 300+ million years.

Nonetheless, the authors also note that geophilomorphs are still known to avoid light – the question now is how the hell they do it… And, of course, whether Strigamia has a clock is not known – only that it doesn’t have the clock we’re used to. We also have no idea at this point how old the gene losses actually are, since all the authors know is that one other centipede from a different group has perfectly good clock genes and opsins.

In comparison with fruit flies and other insects, the Strigamia genome also reveals some of the ways in which evolutionary cats can be skinned in multiple ways. There is an immune-related gene family we share with arthropods and other animals, called Dscam. The product of this gene is involved in pathogen recognition among other things, and in flies, Dscam genes are divided into roughly 100 chunks or exons, most of which are are found in clusters of variant copies. When the gene is transcribed, only one of these copies is used from each such cluster, so in practical terms the handful of fruit fly Dscam genes can encode tens of thousands of different proteins, enough to adapt to a lot of different pathogens.

A similar arrangement is seen in the closely related crustaceans, although with fewer potential alternative products. In other groups – the paper uses vertebrates, echinoderms, nematodes and molluscs for comparison – the Dscam family is pretty boring with at most one or two members and none of these duplicated exons and alternative splicing business. However, it looks like insects+crustaceans are not the only arthropods to come up with a lot of DSCAM proteins. Strigamia might also make lots of different ones (“only” hundreds in this case), but it achieved this by having dozens of copies of the whole gene instead of performing crazy editing feats on a small number of genes. Convergent evolution FTW!

Before I paraphrase the entire paper in my squeeful enthusiasm (no, seriously, I’ve not even mentioned the Hox genes, and the convergent evolution of chemoreceptors, and I think it’s best if I shut up now), let’s get to something else that I can’t not “point out” at length: a shiny new vetulicolian, and they say it’s related to sea squirts!

Vetulicolians really deserve a proper discussion, but in lieu of a spare week to read up on their messiness, for now, it’s enough to say that these early Cambrian animals have baffled palaeontologists since day one. Reconstructions of various types look like… a balloon with a fin? Inflated grubs without faces? I don’t know. Drawings below (Stanton F. Fink, Wikipedia) show an assortment of the beasts, plus Yunnanozoon, which may or may not have something to do with them. Here are some photos of their fossils, in case you wondered.

Vetulicolians from Wiki

They’re certainly difficult creatures to make sense of. Since their discovery, they’ve been called both arthropods and chordates, and you can’t get much farther than that with bilaterian animals (they’re kind of like the Nectocaris of old, come to think of it…).

The latest one was dug up from the Emu Bay Shale of Australia, the same place that yielded our first good look at anomalocaridid eyes. Its newest treasure has been named Nesonektris aldridgei by its taxonomic parents (GarcĂ­a-Bellido et al., 2014), and it looks something like this (Diego GarcĂ­a-Bellido’s reconstruction from the paper):


In other words, pretty typical vetulicolian “life but not as we know it”, at first glance. Its main interest lies in the bit labelled “nc” in the specimens shown below (from the same figure):


This chunky structure in the animal’s… tail or whatever is a notochord, the authors contend. Now, only one kind of animal has a notochord: a chordate. (Suspicious annelid muscle bundles notwithstanding. Oh yeah, I also wanted to post on Lauri et al. 2014. Oops?) So if this thing in the middle of Nesonektris’s tail is a notochord, then at the very least it is more closely related to chordates than anything else.

Why do they think it is one? Well, there are several long paragraphs devoted to just that, so here goes a summary:

1. It’s probably not the gut. A gut would be the other obvious ID, but it doesn’t fit very well in this case. Structures interpreted as guts in other vetulicolians – which sometimes contain stuff that may be half-digested food – (a) start in the front half of the body, where the mouth is, (b) constrict and expand and coil and generally look much floppier than this, (c) don’t look segmented, (d) sometimes occur alongside these tail rod-like thingies, so probably aren’t the same structure.

2. It positively resembles modern half-decayed notochords. The notochords of living chordates are long stacks of (muscular or fluid-filled) discs, which fall apart into big blocks as the animal decomposes after death. Here’s what remains of the notochord of a lamprey after two months for comparison (from Sansom et al. (2013)):


This one isn’t as regular as the blockiness in the fossils, I think, but that could just be the vetulicolians not being quite as rotten.

There is, of course, a but(t). To be precise, there are also long paragraphs discussing why the structure might not be a notochord after all. It’s much thicker than anything currently interpreted as such in reasonably clear Cambrian chordates, for one thing. Moreover, it ends right where the animal does, in a little notch that looks like a good old-fashioned arsehole. By the way, the paper notes, vetulicolian tails in general don’t go beyond their anuses by any reasonable interpretation of the anus, and a tail behind the anus is kind of a defining feature of chordates, though this study cites a book from the 1970s claiming that sea squirt larvae have a vestigial bit of proto-gut going all the way to the tip of the tail. (I suspect that claim could use the application of some modern cell labelling techniques, but I’ve not actually seen the book…)

… and there is a phylogenetic analysis, in which, if you interpret vetulicolians as deuterostomes (which impacts how you score their various features), they come out specifically as squirt relatives whether or not you count the notochord. I’m never sure how much stock to put in a phylogenetic analysis based on a few bits of anatomy gleaned from highly contentious fossils, but at least we can say that there are other things – like a hefty cuticle – beyond that notochord-or-not linking vetulicolians to a specific group of chordates.

Having reached the end, I don’t feel like this paper solved anything. Nice fossils either way 🙂

And with that, I’m off. Maybe next time I’ll write something that manages to be about the same thing throughout. I’ve been thinking that I should try to do more posts about broader topics rather than one or two papers (like the ones I wrote about ocean acidification or homology versus developmental genetics), but I’ve yet to see whether I’ll have the willpower to handle the necessary reading. I’m remarkably lazy for someone who wants to know everything 😀

(Aside: holy crap, did I ALSO miss a fucking Nature paper about calcisponges’ honest to god ParaHox genes? Oh my god, oh my GOD!!! *sigh* This is also a piece of incredibly exciting information I’ve known for years, and I miss it when it actually comes out in a journal bloody everyone reads. You can tell I’ve been off-planet!)


Chipman AD et al. (2014) The first myriapod genome sequence reveals conservative arthropod gene content and genome organisation in the centipede Strigamia maritima. PLoS Biology 12:e1002005

GarcĂ­a-Bellido DC et al. (2014) A new vetulicolian from Australia and its bearing on the chordate affinities of an enigmatic Cambrian group. BMC Evolutionary Biology 14:214

Lauri A et al. (2014) Development of the annelid axochord: insights into notochord evolution. Science 345:1365-1368

Sansom RS et al. (2013) Atlas of vertebrate decay: a visual and taphonomic guide to fossil interpretation. Palaeontology 56:457-474

Catching up

So I felt like I couldn’t put off the sixteen hundred articles twiddling their thumbs and tapping their feet in my RSS reader any longer. This is the first part of the crop that has accumulated since late December (yikes!). Legless axolotls, homing starfish, secretly related proteins, and more!

1. Axolotls are good at regenerating – until you make them grow up.

(Portrait of a pale lab/aquarium variety axolotl by Orizatriz, Wiki Commons.)

It’s probably not exactly obvious from my posting record, but a large part of my PhD work is about regeneration. It’s something we humans are pretty shit at, but many other vertebrates aren’t. Axolotls, these adorably dumb-faced salamanders, can easily regrow their legs. However, lab axolotls are kind of permanent babies. Although they can grow up in the sense that they are able to breed, they normally keep larval characteristics like gills throughout their lives. It’s reasonable to suspect that this influences their regenerative ability – after all, tadpoles lose their ability to regrow limbs the moment they turn into frogs.

It’s possible to make axolotls metamorphose, too, if you treat them with thyroxine (the same hormone that induces metamorphosis in “normal” amphibians). And when they turn into proper adult salamanders, they suddenly become much poorer regenerators. They can still replace a limb – kind of. But they take twice as long as non-metamorphosed axolotls of the same age and size, and they invariably wind up with small, malformed limbs, often missing bones. After amputation, new skin is slower to grow over their wounds, and the cells that gather under the new skin are sluggish to divide. Something about metamorphosis – that isn’t simply age – dramatically changes how they respond to amputation.

Reference: Monaghan JR et al. (2014) Experimentally induced metamorphosis in axolotls reduces regeneration rate and fidelity. Regeneration advance online publication, doi: 10.1002/reg2.8


2. Similar cells repair muscles in crustaceans and vertebrates

“Regeneration” can cover a lot of different processes. For example, depending on the creature and the organ you’ve damaged, regenerated body parts can come from totally different kinds of cells. In planarian flatworms, a single kind of stem cell can replace anything else in the body. In the eyes of newts, mature cells of the iris transform into lens cells to replace a missing lens. In our muscles, there are special cells called satellite cells that are held in reserve specifically to make new muscle cells when needed.

This recent study of a little crustacean called Parhyale hawaiensis suggests that muscle regeneration in the fingernail-sized arthropod works in much the same way. Konstantinidis and Averof shot early embryos of Parhyale with DNA encoding a fluorescent marker, which randomly integrated into the genomes of some of the cells it hit. In a few “lucky” individuals, the marker ended up labelling just one cell lineage, and the pair used these animals to figure out which cells made which tissues in a regenerated limb.

It turned out that cells in Parhyale are limited in their potential. Descendants of the ectodermal lineage could make skin and nerves but not muscle, and the mesodermal lineage built muscle but not skin or nerves. Moreover, labelled cells only contributed to regeneration near their original location – animals with their left sides labelled never regrew glowing limbs on the right side. This is starting to sound a lot like vertebrates, but it’s still a very general observation. However, the similarities don’t end there.

Like vertebrate muscles, the muscles of the little crustaceans contain satellite-like cells derived from the mesodermal lineage that sit beside mature muscle cells and express the Pax3/7 gene. When the researchers transplanted some of these cells from animals with the glowy label into leg stumps of non-glowy animals, there were glowing muscle cells in some of the regenerated limbs. So like satellite cells, these cells can turn into muscle during regeneration. There’s little question that muscle cells have a common origin in vertebrates and arthropods like Parhyale, but it’s really cool to see that their mechanisms of regeneration also might.

Reference: Konstantinidis N & Averof M (2014) A common cellular basis for muscle regeneration in arthropods and vertebrates. Science, published online 02/01/2014, doi: 10.1126/science.1243529


3. Convergent evolution is a poor explanation of rhodopsins

Proteins can be difficult. I mean, sometimes they do their darnedest to hide their family ties. A protein is a chain of amino acids (on average about 300 of them) often folded into a complex shape. Closely related proteins have obviously similar amino acid sequences. However, more distant relatives can be harder to identify. There are about 20 different kinds of amino acids in proteins, so the number of possible sequences is unimaginably vast. The same function can be carried out by very different sequences, and therefore enough evolution can completely erase sequence similarity.

Protein structures are generally thought to be more conserved than sequences. Like function, structure allows for a huge amount of sequence variation without significantly changing. However, theoretically, it’s possible that two unrelated proteins have similar structures because of their similar functions, not because of common ancestry. Apparently, this has been argued for the two types of rhodopsins – proteins that harvest light in systems as different as a the “solar generator” of a salt-loving microbe and the photoreceptors of our own eyes.

If Type I and Type II rhodopsins are similar despite being unrelated, one would assume that this is because they need to be that way to capture light. There are, after all, astronomical numbers of possible protein structures, and the chances of two protein families accidentally stumbling onto the same one without selection steering are slim to say the least. But, in fact, you can rearrange the structure of a rhodopsin in all kinds of cunning ways without destroying its function. This rather weakens the case for convergent evolution, and suggests that similarity of structure does indicate common ancestry here.

Reference: Mackin KA et al. (2014) An empirical test of convergent evolution in rhodopsins. Molecular Biology and Evolution 31:85-95


4. Starfish can see their way back home

(Blue starfish, the beast featured in the paper, in its natural habitat. Richard Ling, Wiki Commons.)

Starfish aren’t widely known as visual creatures, but they do have eyes at the tips of their arms. The eyes are a bit… basic – no lenses, just a hundred or two little units filled with photoreceptors. Garm and Nilsson set out to find out how the starfish used their eyes. They measured or calculated the eyes’ visual fields (five arm-eyes together can see pretty much everywhere around the animal), resolution (very coarse), reaction speed (slow), and their sensitivity to various wavelengths (they are colour-blind, most sensitive to ocean blue).

Then they took some poor starfish and dumped them a little way off the coral reefs they like staying on. The creatures could walk home from short distances (about 2 m or less), but if you take them too far away, they just wander around in random directions. Likewise if you take off their eyes (don’t worry, they regenerate) or do the experiment in the dark. In conclusion: starfish eyes aren’t exactly top-end cameras, but they are definitely useful to the animals. And what would a slow, brainless mopper-up of coral reef rubbish do with eagle eyes anyway?

(The paper states the walking speed of these starfish as about 4-5 cm per minute. I have a feeling this wasn’t the most exciting fieldwork these guys have done…)

Reference: Garm A & Nilsson D-E (2014) Visual navigation in starfish: first evidence for the use of vision and eyes in starfish. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281:20133011


5. What makes wormies settle

OK, Shikuma et al. (2014) one isn’t so much for its own news value, but I hadn’t known that my favourite worms need bacteria to settle until I saw this paper, so I think it deserves a mention. (Besides, it has beautiful pictures of baby Hydroides in it, which I couldn’t resist posting below. They are So. Cute. Yes, I’m weird.)


Tubeworms of the serpulid family have swimming larvae which are in many ways like the acorn worm larvae mentioned in my previous post (except cuter). They are tiny, look nothing like an adult worm, have bands of cilia for swimming and feeding, and live in the plankton until they’re ready to metamorphose. When they find a place they like, they settle and turn into adult worms. And apparently, this particular species (Hydroides elegans) not only needs a specific bacterium to like a place, it needs specific proteins produced by that bacterium.

The proteins in question are the components of a nasty device bacteria probably stole from viruses and then used to poke holes in one another. But to Hydroides larvae, they appear to be necessary for metamorphosis. Put healthy bacteria together with worm babies in a dish, and you’ll get happily settled little worms. Do the same with bacteria with damage to the relevant genes, and nothing happens. Use an extract containing the proteins but not the bacteria, and you still get metamorphosing worms. Use too much, though, and they start dying. Everything in moderation…

(Maybe my dismal failure at raising happy young worms years ago could have been remedied with the right bacteria?)

Reference: Shikuma NJ et al. (2014) Marine tubeworm metamorphosis induced by arrays of bacterial phage tail-like structures. Science 343:529-533


6. Relative of animals does strange multicellularity with familiar genetics

Although this idea probably hasn’t reached popular perception, animals are surrounded by other multicellular lineages in the tree of life. Sure, most of them are only part-time multicellular, but that’s beside the point. What’s clear is that multicellularity, at least in its simpler forms, is rampant in our extended family. Slime moulds do it, fungi do it, our closest relatives choanoflagellates do it, and our next closest relatives, filastereans and ichthyosporeans also do it.

These latter two groups are really poorly known (the fact that only a taxonomist could like the latter’s name probably doesn’t help), but the situation is getting better with the attention they are receiving as relatives of animals. There are now genome sequences out, and some people are looking at the life cycles of the little creatures to search for clues to our own origins.

Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo recently published a paper describing an ichthyosporean that can form a weird kind of colony with many nuclei in the same membrane starting from a single cell (Suga and Ruiz-Trillo, 2013). Now his team describe a different kind of multicellularity in a filasterean, Capsaspora owczarzaki. Rather than developing from a single cell, this guy does something more akin to the slime mould way: take a load of individual cells and bring them together. (Below: a clump of Capsaspora cells from Sebé-Pedros et al. [2013]. On the right is a regular photograph of the colony. The two-coloured fluorescence on the left indicates that the colony formed by different cells coming together rather than a single cell dividing.)


But, interestingly, some of the genetics involved is similar to what animals use, despite the different ways in which the two groups achieve multicellularity. For example, we’ve known since all those genomes came out that the proteins animals use to glue cells together and make them talk to each other are often older than animals. Well, Ruiz-Trillo’s filasterean appears to ramp up the production of some of these when it goes multicellular. It also uses a gene regulation strategy that animals are really big on: it edits the RNA transcribed from many genes in different ways depending on cell type/life stage before it’s translated into protein.

A lot of the details are going to need further investigation, since this was a global RNA-sequencing study with a bird’s-eye view of what genes are doing. It’s still a nice reminder that, like most other innovations in evolutionary history, the multicellularity of animals didn’t spring fully formed out of nowhere.


Suga H & Ruiz-Trillo I (2013) Development of ichthyosporeans sheds light on the origin of metazoan multicellularity. Development 377:284-292

Sebé-Pedros A et al. (2013) Regulated aggregative multicellularity in a close unicellular relative of metazoa. eLife 2:e01287

A bunch of cool things

From the weeks during which I failed to check my RSS reader…

1. The coolest ribozyme ever. (In more than one sense.)

I’ve made no secret of my fandom of the RNA world hypothesis, according to which early life forms used RNA both as genetic material and as enzymes, before DNA took over the former role and proteins (mostly) took over the latter. RNA is truly an amazing molecule, capable of doing all kinds of stuff that we traditionally imagined as the job of proteins. However, coaxing it into carrying out the most important function of a primordial RNA genome – copying itself – has proven pretty difficult.

To my knowledge, the previous record holder in the field of RNA copying ribozymes (Wochner et al., 2011) ran out of steam after making RNA strands only half of its own length. (Which is still really impressive compared to its predecessors!) In a recent study, the same team turned to an alternative RNA world hypothesis for inspiration. According to the “icy RNA world” scenario, pockets of cold liquid in ice could have helped stabilise the otherwise pretty easily degraded RNA as well as concentrate and isolate it in a weird inorganic precursor to cells.

Using experimental evolution in an icy setting, they found a variation related to the aforementioned ribozyme that was much quicker and generally much better at copying RNA than its ancestors. Engineering a few previously known performance-enhancing mutations into this molecule finally gave a ribozyme that could copy an RNA molecule longer than itself! It still wouldn’t be able to self-replicate, since this particular guy can only copy sequences with certain properties it doesn’t have itself, but we’ve got the necessary endurance now. Only two words can properly describe how amazing that is. Holy. Shit. :-O


Attwater J et al. (2013) In-ice evolution of RNA polymerase ribozyme activity. Nature Chemistry, published online 20/10/2013, doi: 10.1038/nchem.1781

Wochner A et al. (2011) Ribozyme-catalyzed transcription of an active ribozyme. Science 332:209-212


2. Cambrian explosion: evolution on steroids.

This one’s for those people who say there is nothing special about evolution during the Cambrian – and also for those who say it was too special. (Creationists, I’m looking at you.) It is also very much for me, because Cambrian! (How did I not spot this paper before? Theoretically, it came out before I stopped checking RSS…)

Lee et al. (2013) used phylogenetic trees of living arthropods to estimate how fast they evolved at different points in their history. They looked at both morphology and genomes, because the two can behave very differently. It’s basically a molecular clock study, and I’m still not sure I trust molecular clocks, but let’s just see what it says and leave lengthy ruminations about its validity to my dark and lonely hours 🙂

They used living arthropods because, obviously, you can’t look at genome evolution in fossils, but the timing of branching events in the tree was calibrated with fossils. With several different methods, they inferred evolutionary trees telling them how much change probably happened during different periods in arthropod history. They tweaked things like the estimated time of origin of arthropods, or details of the phylogeny, but always got similar results.

On average, arthropod genomes, development and anatomy evolved several times faster during the Cambrian than at any later point in time. Including the aftermath of the biggest mass extinctions. Mind you, not faster than modern animals can evolve under strong selection – they just kept up those rates for longer, and everyone did it.

(I’m jumping up and down a little, and at the same time I feel like there must be something wrong with this study, the damned thing is too good to be true. And I’d still prefer to see evolutionary rates measured on actual fossils, but there’s no way on earth the fossil record of any animal group is going to be good enough for that sort of thing. Conflicted much?)


Lee MSY et al. (2013) Rates of phenotypic and genomic evolution during the Cambrian explosion. Current Biology 23:1889-1895


3. Chitons to sausages

Aplacophorans are probably not what you think of when someone mentions molluscs. They are worm-like and shell-less, although they do have tiny mineralised scales or spines. Although they look like one might imagine an ancestral mollusc before the invention of shells, transitional fossils and molecular phylogenies have linked them to chitons, which have a more conventional “sluggy” body plan with a wide foot suitable for crawling and an armoured back with seven shell plates.

Scherholz et al. (2013) compared the musculature of a living aplacophoran to that of a chiton and found it to support the idea that aplacophorans are simplified from a chiton-like ancestor rather than simple from the start. As adults, aplacophorans and chitons are very different – chitons have a much more complex set of muscles that includes muscles associated with their shell plates. However, the missing muscles appear to be present in baby aplacophorans, who only lose them when they metamorphose. (As a caveat, this study only focused on one group of aplacophorans, and it’s not entirely certain whether the two main groups of these creatures should even be together.)


Scherholz M et al. (2013) Aplacophoran molluscs evolved from ancestors with polyplacophoran-like features. Current Biology in press, available online 17/10/2013, doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.08.056


4. Does adaptation constrain mammalian spines?

Mammals are pretty rigid when it comes to the differentiation of the vertebral column. We nearly all have seven neck vertebrae, for example. This kind of conservatism is surprising when you look at other vertebrates – which include not only fairly moderate groups like birds with their variable necks, but also extremists like snakes with their lack of legs and practically body-long ribcages. Mammalian necks are evolutionarily constrained, and have been that way for a long time.

Emily Buchholz proposes an interesting explanation with links to previous hypotheses. Mammals not only differ from other vertebrates in the less variable numbers of vertebrae in various body regions; these regions are also more differentiated. For example, mammals are the only vertebrates that lack ribs in the lower back. In Buchholz’s view, this kind of increased differentiation contributes to adaptation but costs flexibility.

Her favourite example is the muscular diaphragm unique to mammals. This helps mammals breathe while they move, and also makes breathing more powerful, which is nice for active, warm-blooded creatures that use a lot of oxygen. However, it also puts constraints on further changes. Importantly, Buccholz argues that these constraints don’t all have to work in the same way.

For example, the constraint on the neck may arise because muscle cells in the diaphragm come from the same place as muscle cells associated with specific neck vertebrae. Moving the forelimbs relative to the spine, i.e. changing the number of neck vertebrae, would mess up their migration to the right place, and we’d end up with equally messed up diaphragms.

A second possible constraint has less to do with developmental mishaps and more to do with plain old functionality. If you moved the pelvis forward, you may not screw with the development of other bits, but you’d squeeze the space behind the diaphragm, which you kind of need for your guts, especially when you’re breathing in using your lovely diaphragm.


Buccholz E (2013) Crossing the frontier: a hypothesis for the origins of meristic constraint in mammalian axial patterning. Zoology in press, available online 28/10/2013, doi: 10.1016/j.zool.2013.09.001


And… I think that approximately covers today’s squee moments 🙂

Neurulating acorn worms, and the Mammal is confused

To the everyday animal lover, acorn worms have few things going for them. They are pretty hideous as a rule, and they don’t really do anything interesting. (If you count “eating mud all day” as interesting, you are probably a sediment ecologist…)

True to their mud-eating selves, though, acorn worms are great at muddying the water in the evo-devo world. You see, there’s this neat idea that goes back to the early 19th century called dorsoventral inversion. French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire once noted that an arthropod looks rather like an upside down vertebrate in many ways. This diagram from the Wikipedia entry illustrates the concept rather nicely:

The pink and snot-green triangles on the side represent the expression levels of the key genes that determine where the back and belly sides go. dpp (decapentaplegic) is the fly homologue of BMP4 (or BMP2, 4 and 7, to be precise), and sog (short gastrulation) is the fly version of chordin. So not only do major structures like the central nervous system develop on opposite sides of the body, the developmental genetics are also upside down. It seems like a no-brainer. (Well, chordates had to somehow move the mouth back to the belly side, but hey, no big deal ;))

Then those evil acorn worms come in and complicate things.

Acorn worms belong to the phylum Hemichordata. Hemichordates are most closely related to echinoderms like sea urchins. Together with chordates (vertebrates, sea squirts and lancelets), they make up the deuterostomes. Fruit flies and most worms that aren’t “acorn”, on the other hand, are protostomes.

Whether acorn worms and other hemichordates have a central nervous system at all has been the subject of some debate. Recent evidence suggests that they do (Nomaksteinsky et al., 2009). They don’t even just have one, they have two of them, taking the form of nerve cords on the dorsal and ventral sides of the animal. The dorsal nerve cord forms in a way eerily similar to our own spinal cord. Chordates like ourselves undergo a process called neurulation, in which some of the ectoderm (“skin”) on the embryo’s back folds inwards to form a hollow tube that’s the precursor of the central nervous system. Well, look what happens in an acorn worm (figure from Luttrell et al., 2012):

The left side of this image depicts the process in the acorn worm Ptychodera flava (and shows you a young worm – innit cute?), while the right side illustrates what happens in a chick embryo. (I’m not sure why they didn’t use actual photos of chick neurulation, I don’t imagine they’d be very hard to come by…)

In chordates, the notochord (precursor of our spine) sends out chemical signals to direct nerve cord formation. Acorn worms don’t have anything notochord-like at the time the nerve cord develops, but somehow they make it look like neurulation anyway. If it looks like a duck (or chick, as the case may be) and quacks like one, it might just be one.

The problem?

It happens on the wrong side. Having read the two papers I’ve cited so far, my impression is that neurulation only happens with the dorsal cord. However, in other respects these animals share the arthropod, not the vertebrate, orientation. Most importantly, their genetic dorsoventral axis is oriented like that of arthropods and other protostomes, with BMP levels in the embryo highest on the dorsal side (Lowe et al., 2006). Chordate embryos can’t even make a nervous system at high BMP levels!

It seems that whatever happened to turn the ancestral bilaterian on its head, it wasn’t as simple as flipping the animal and relocating the mouth. The development of the central nervous system shares serious developmental genetic similarities among deuterostomes like us and protostomes like flies (Arendt and NĂŒbler-Jung, 1999) or ragworms (Denes et al., 2007), indicating that if not a full-blown CNS, then at least the genetic pattern was present in our common ancestor.

The figure above is a schematic comparison of gene expression in the developing nervous systems of fruit flies (Drosophila), ragworms (Platynereis) and vertebrates from Denes et al. (2007). The diagram labelled Enteropneust illustrates the lack of data from acorn worms, which I don’t fully understand given that Lowe et al. (2006) actually studied several of the genes included in this figure. Speaking of that, acorn worms once again prove to be weird and confusing, since the genes in question aren’t expressed in anything like the longitudinal stripes seen in the other animals. In fact, Lowe et al. (2006) found that they aren’t obviously associated with either of the nerve cords.

To be precise, Lowe et al. worked under the assumption that acorn worms had no nerve cords, but if you look at their pictures the lack of resemblance is blindingly obvious. For example, Msx, the light grey gene on the Platynereis and vertebrate diagrams, goes all around acorn worm embryos in a relatively narrow ring. Nk2.2, the red gene, isn’t even expressed in the ectoderm (the embryonic “skin”), whereas central nervous systems invariably come from there. Did Lowe et al. get the wrong genes or what? Don’t think so, Msxes at least are pretty easy to recognise…

To summarise: acorn worm central nervous systems develop much like ours, but on the wrong side of the body, with none of the genetic similarities we share with animals much less closely related to us than acorn worms. To top that, the damn worms have another nerve cord on the opposite side, which doesn’t develop by neurulation unless I’ve misunderstood something.

I… have no idea what’s going on here. Damn you, nature, you need to work on your clarity.



Arendt D & NĂŒbler-Jung K (1999) Comparison of early nerve cord development in insects and vertebrates. Development 126:2309-2325

Denes AS et al. (2007) Molecular architecture of annelid nerve cord supports common origin of nervous system centralization in Bilateria. Cell 129:277-288

Lowe CJ et al. (2006) Dorsoventral patterning in hemichordates: insights into early chordate evolution. PLoS Biology 4:e291

Luttrell S et al. (2012) Ptychoderid hemichordate neurulation without a notochord. Integrative and Comparative Biology 52:829-834

Nomaksteinsky M et al. (2009) Centrarlization of the deuterostome nervous system predates chordates. Current Biology 19:1264-1269

So… much… STUFF!

Gods, this is what I’m faced with all the time. Someone needs to tell me how proper science bloggers pick articles to discuss, because I just get my RSS alerts, start squeeing, and end up not writing about anything because damn, I WANT TO WRITE ABOUT EVERYTHING!

I give up. I’ll just dump all the cool stuff that’s accumulated on my desktop and bookmark bar here and return to lengthy meandering whenever I don’t feel like I’ve been caught in a bloody tornado 😉

So, here is some Cool Stuff…

(1) A group measured the rate of DNA decay in 158 moa bones of known age from three sites. Really cool stuff, to go out and directly measure how ancient DNA disappears from dead things under more or less identical conditions. The unsurprising result is that DNA decays exponentially, a bit like radioactive material. This suggests that the main cause of the decay is random breaking of the strands. The surprising bit is that this happens much more slowly than previously estimated, suggesting that in ideal (read: frozen) conditions, it might be worth looking for preserved DNA in samples as old as a million years.

(On a side note, if you ever get a chance to see a talk by Eske Willerslev, one of the authors and a leading expert on ancient DNA, don’t miss it. The man is absolutely hilarious.)

– Allentoft ME et al. (2012) The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils. Proceedings of the Royal Society B FirstCite article, available online 10/10/2012, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1745

(2) The beaks of the finches, or mixing and matching developmental recipes. This study examines the genetic basis of beak shape in three little birds closely related to Darwin’s famous finches. The three finches, just like Darwin’s, share the same basic beak shape, only bigger or smaller. However, there seem to be two distinct developmental programs at work, using different genes and parts of the skeleton to orchestrate beak development. One of the three newly investigated species (the one most closely related to Darwin’s finches) apparently uses the same developmental program as its more famous relatives, even though its beak is shaped more like the other two birds studied here. I told you – genetics, development and homology are complicated 😉

– Mallarino R et al. (2012) Closely related bird species demonstrate flexibility between beak morphology and underlying developmental programs. PNAS 109:16222–16227

(3) Armoured fossil links worm-like molluscs to chitons. There’s a little-known group (or groups) of molluscs called aplacophorans that have only a coat of tiny spicules instead of shells and look more like worms than “proper” molluscs. Exactly where they fit into our picture of mollusc evolution has been controversial to say the least – they could represent an old lineage separate from other molluscs, they could be related to cephalopods, they could be related to chitons, they could be one group or they could be two lineages in completely different places on the tree… Well, a new fossil named Kulindroplax seems to argue for the chiton connection: the animal has the characteristic armour plates of a chiton on an aplacophoran-like body. Similar creatures have been discovered before, but this guy with its detailed 3D preservation provides the clearest evidence of the link so far.

– Sutton MD et al. (2012) A Silurian armoured aplacophoran and implications for molluscan phylogeny. Nature 490:94-97

(4) More cool fossils – this time straight from my beloved Cambrian. Nereocaris, a newly described Burgess Shale arthropod, suggests to its discoverers that the earliest arthropods weren’t predators prowling the seafloor, but swimmers who might have been filter feeders and certainly weren’t predators. The animal has a bivalved shell around its front end, similar to many other Cambrian swimming arthropods, and a long abdomen with paddles at the end. It bears the arthropod hallmark of a hardened and jointed exoskeleton, but it lacks specialised limbs such as antennae or mouthparts. In a cladistic analysis of arthropods and their nearest relatives, the new species comes out on the first branch within true arthropods, and the next few branches as we move towards living arthropods all contain similar shelled, swimming creatures. Since the non-arthropods closest to the real thing (i.e. anomalocaridids) were also fin-tailed swimmers, this arrangement makes the transition between them and true arthropods smoother than previously thought. It also suggests that the hard exoskeleton so characteristic of arthropods originally functioned in swimming – perhaps as an anchor for swimming muscles.

– Legg DA et al. (2012) Cambrian bivalved arthropod reveals origin of arthrodization. Proceedings of the Royal Society B FirstCite article, available online 10/10/2012, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1958


And … there was also

… but it’s almost bedtime, and if I wanted to summarise every one of those, I’d be here all weekend 😩

See, this is why being a science nerd today is both amazing and frustrating. There’s just so. Much. Stuff.

Velvet worms in a prettier light

I bumped into Mayer et al. (2010) while hunting for reagents to use in an experiment I’m planning. The article is about segmentation (sort of), so I had to have a closer look, and man. Those pictures. Fluorescence and a good microscope can do wonders. This is what a velvet worm looks like in normal light (whole body shot of an unspecified peripatid by Geoff Gallice, Wikipedia, and portrait of Euperipatoides rowelli by AndrĂĄs Keszei via EOL):

I think they are adorable and cuddly the way they are (apart from that hunting with slime bit), but they look simply gorgeous if you stick some glowing antibodies to them and start playing with a confocal ‘scope.

This is a fairly late-stage embryo of E. rowelli, the same guy waving its chubby leggies at you in the right-hand photo above. The green dots are cells that were copying their DNA when the baby was killed (all of the pictures below are from Mayer et al., of course):

These are younger embryos of the same species, with all their DNA labelled in blue and dividing cells labelled in red:

And these are embryos of another species from the same family as the unidentified guy from Wikipedia (colours are the same as above):

Seriously, there is something about the mystical glow of these images that always gets me. I think you could make almost anything look beautiful with a fluorescent marker and the right equipment. I know aesthetic appeal isn’t the primary aim of scientific imaging, but damn. Look at those alien creatures glowing with the light of the unknown.

In case you wondered, the point of the paper is that velvet worms lack a posterior growth zone. That means that when they develop their numerous segments, there isn’t a well-defined pool of cells at the rear of the embryo that divide to generate segment material. As you can see in all the red glow, cell division happens evenly all over the place. Why is this significant? Well, posterior growth zones were thought to be one of the characteristics that segmented animals might have inherited from their common ancestor. But Mayer and colleagues point out that the existence of a PGZ in the arthropod ancestor is dubious at best, and velvet worms (one of the closest living relatives of arthropods) also lack one, so maybe it’s kind of wrong to use the PGZ as an argument for the common ancestry of segmentation.

(There, that’s the science in a nutshell. Now I’ll just go back and admire the pretty glowy pictures some more :D)


Mayer G et al. (2010) Growth patterns in Onychophora (velvet worms): lack of a localised posterior proliferation zone. BMC Evolutionary Biology 10:339

News bites

Just quickly before I completely forget about these…

(1) Common ancestry of segmentation: back-and-forth-and-back-and-forth

Seaver EC et al.(2012) Expression of the pair-rule gene homologs runt, Pax3/7, even-skipped-1 and even-skipped-2 during larval and juvenile development of the polychaete annelid Capitella teleta does not support a role in segmentation. EvoDevo 3:8

I’ve made throwaway mentions of segmentation before. The conundrum about segmentation is whether (or rather, to what extent) it is homologous in the three “eusegmented” phyla, arthropods, annelids and chordates. It arises because all three phyla are separated from the others by many lineages that aren’t usually considered segmented – yet the three share some tantalising similarities. People have been trying to solve the question by comparing the genetic mechanisms generating the segments in each group, with mixed results. One of the papers in my previous news bite post was about the similarity of segmentation in arthropods and vertebrates. Now, here’s one for the differences between arthropods and the wormies. (You can’t say I’m not fair :-P) The genes listed in the study’s title were originally described in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, one of the best studied animals in developmental biology (and, like, every other area of biology). There, they have an interesting role in that each of them helps define every other body segment. IIRC, Pax3/7 (known in flies as paired) and even-skipped are for even-numbered segments, runt is for the odd ones. Now, segmentation in Drosophila is (to put it mildly) fucking weird, but if memory serves, several of these pair-rule genes have been confirmed to play similar roles in less eccentric arthropods. Elaine Seaver and colleagues looked at their expression in their favourite worm (this guy. Seaver’s group obviously didn’t pick it for its beauty :-P), and they found that they were active in… nothing resembling a two-segment pattern. Or anything segment-related. The more genetic studies come out, the more complicated the whole segmentation issue is looking…

(2) Someone found the cause of the Cambrian explosion. (Again.)

Peters SE & Gaines RR (2012) Formation of the ‘Great Unconformity’ as a trigger for the Cambrian explosion. Nature 484:363-366

The Cambrian explosion is probably not what you think it is (no, all animal phyla didn’t just suddenly pop into existence fully formed ;)). Nevertheless, the (relatively) quick rise of animals – particularly animals with hard parts – beginning in the Early Cambrian is still odd enough to fascinate generations of palaeontologists, evolutionary biologists and geologists. The list of proposed causes is pretty long by this point (and believe me, I really really would like to go into them once… but, uh. Huge, dauntingly huge topic). Explanations range from denying the need for an explanation through pinning it on oxygen levels, ice ages, developmental genetics, predation, biomineralisation, even the evolution of eyes, and, working from memory, I probably left some more out of that list. Peters and Gaines’ preferred explanation seems to be geological and ecological: they suggest that a combination of lots of erosion/weathering on land, and a subsequent rise in sea levels, led to large new shallow seas that were chock full of dissolved minerals. New habitats to conquer + widely available minerals = an explosion of new animals with mineralised hard parts. This study is a nice two-in-one: it purports to explain not only the Cambrian explosion, but also the conspicuous gap in the geological record that separates Cambrian from Precambrian rocks in many places.

News bites

Since work is quite frantic lately, and my attention span has gone on holiday, I’ve decided to do something I haven’t done before and just say a few words about papers that caught my interest today without actually reading them. Each of these is probably worth a full-blown meandering of its own, but I know I wouldn’t ever get to them at this rate. Better read their abstracts and give some quick thoughts than let them sink unnoticed into the murk of my “papers” folder!

(1) How many genomes do we (not) have?

Reference: Ali Abbasi A & Hanif H (2012) Phylogenetic history of paralogous gene quartets on  human chromosomes 1, 2, 8 and 20 provides no evidence in favor of the vertebrate octoploidy hypothesis. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, in press (doi: 10.1016/j.ympev.2012.02.028)

(How many papers have authors with alliterating names? :D)

In the circles I move in, it’s pretty much canon that the ancestors of living vertebrates doubled their entire genomes twice. It’s still debated exactly when these duplications occurred, but few people doubt that they did. This so-called 2R hypothesis is supported by things like our possession of several (quite often, four) copies of genes that are singletons in our closest living relatives (read: lancelets*), and more importantly, that whole big chunks of lancelet chromosomes can be matched to chunks of four different vertebrate (mainly, human) chromosomes. Genes that are close to one another in lancelets are often also close together in vertebrates.

The relationship is not perfect – in well over 500 million years of evolution, genes inevitably get lost and bits of chromosome scrambled. And, thus, there is always room to question the 2R scenario, which is what this paper clearly does. They propose that those four-gene families originated at all sorts of different times, from small local duplications and rearrangements. If they are right, this is a very important result. It basically uproots every bit of speculation ever proposed on how the genome duplications contributed to the evolution of vertebrates, which, far as I can tell, is a hell of a lot of speculation. Not having read the whole paper, I would still put my money on 2R, but who knows what the future holds? Maybe we are facing a minor paradigm shift?

(2) The segmentation clock also ticks in insects!

Reference: Sarrazin AF et al. (2012) A segmentation clock with two-segment periodicity in insects. Science, advance online publication (doi: 10.1126/science.1218256)

The evolutionary history of segmentation is one of my random interests, and from my point of view, the above is a good reason to squee in a most fangirlish way. Segmentation is the construction of a body from repeating units. In its purest form, which isn’t that common in modern animals, the animal is essentially made up of identical repeated blocks containing a copy of each key organ like kidneys, nerve centres, limbs and muscles. (Even in the most perfectly segmented creatures, head and tail ends form something of an exception. Ragworms make a nice example.) More commonly, only some components are repeated, and they are repeated with slight differences along the body. Vertebrates’ spine and associated muscles are a good example, and so are the defining traits of arthropods, their jointed exoskeletons equipped with repeated pairs of appendages.

Although traditionally it has been thought that arthropod and vertebrate segmentation have independent origins, parts of the genetic machinery are shared between both groups (as well as segmented worms). Various “segmentation genes” are active in distinct stripes in our embryos, marking out future segments even before we can see the segments themselves. In vertebrates, cells periodically switch “segmentation genes” on and off, and this combined with the growth of the embryo produces a dynamic stripey pattern of gene expression. While segments and stripes of gene expression are darn obvious in arthropods, this is the first time anyone has confirmed that some arthropod segmentation genes actually oscillate like their vertebrate counterparts do, as opposed to, say, the cells expressing them moving about. Whether this is a spectacular example of convergent evolution or evidence of a shared ancestral heritage, I couldn’t say, but it’s really cool either way.

(3) Old genes are entrenched, new genes are redundant after all?

Reference: Chen WH et al.(2012) Younger genes are less likely to be essential than older genes, and duplicates are less likely to be essential than singletons of the same age. Molecular Biology and Evolution advance online publication (doi: 10.1093/molbev/mss014)

So, this claims to resolve a conundrum I wasn’t even aware of before. Gene duplication is thought to be important for the evolution of new functions because two copies of a gene mean there is a backup if one of them fails at its original function. Hence, theory goes, duplicate genes are much less restricted in the evolutionary paths they can take. Apparently, studies in mice have contradicted this common wisdom by claiming that duplicate genes are just as likely to be indispensable as genes without backup copies. However, Chen et al. are saying that this is wrong, confounded by gene age. Since new genes are less likely to be essential than old genes (which had more time to evolve interactions with the rest of the genome), and mouse duplicates are on average older than mouse singletons, the two effects end up cancelling out. When they factor in gene age, duplicates are indeed less essential than loners. One of the central tenets of current thinking about (genetic) novelty stays in the ring for another round…

(4) Is reducing complexity easier than increasing it?

Reference: Harjunmaa E et al. (2012) On the difficulty of increasing dental complexity. Nature advance online publication (doi: 10.1038/nature10876)

How complexity increases in evolution is more than a breeding ground for creationist incredulity, it’s also quite interesting for bona fide evolutionary biologists. Looking at the development of mouse teeth, Harjunmaa et al. notice that increases and decreases in the complexity of tooth shapes require different sorts of mess-ups. Simpler-than-normal teeth are common in mutants and easy to make in experiments. More complex teeth – i.e. those with more cusps – are rarely if ever seen in natural mutants. Turns out they are perfectly possible – you just need to manipulate several genetic pathways at the same time to produce a clear result.

Can this be generalised? Is greater complexity usually harder to achieve? When does this apply and when does it not? I’ve recently read papers that explore how complexity increases easily and completely by chance (I have a half-written post about them languishing on my hard drive, FWIW). Are the rules different for different levels of organisation? The aforementioned complexity-by-chance papers analyse the molecular level: one is about the architecture of gene switches, the other about a protein machine. Teeth are pretty large pieces of life with thousands upon thousands of such machines participating in their production. Does that make a real difference, or is what I’m seeing just coincidence? Dunno, but it’s fascinating to think about!


Heh, it looks like I took rather bigger “bites” of these news than I planned to. I kind of managed to write the equivalent of a full-blown meandering anyway. The only difference is that I didn’t painstakingly reference this one. I hope that doesn’t mean that half of what I wrote off the top of my head is wrong 😀



*Lancelets are now not considered our closest relatives. Unbelievable as that may seem, that honour goes to sea squirts and their ilk. However, the sea squirt bunch are ridiculously weird in all sorts of respects, and their genomes are jumbled beyond recognition. So… not so great if you want to learn anything about our ancestors.

Treehoppers redux

Or how I learned (again) that there are no truly simple stories in biology.

In the name of fairness and plain old intellectual integrity, I should mention some interesting new developments in the treehopper-helmet-novelty issue. Back in the first treehopper post I acknowledged that I’m a far cry from an entomologist, and a new study argues that Benjamin Prud’homme and the entire crew on Prud’homme et al. (2011) may share that attribute with me.

A paper published recently in the open-access online journal PLoS ONE (MikĂł et al., 2012) questions basically every interpretation the previous study made about those funky thoracic appendages. After dissecting, CT-ing and microscoping several treehoppers and related insects, they conclude that:

  • The helmet is not an appendage that articulates with the first thoracic segment – it’s actually most of the first thoracic segment itself.
  • The joint at the base of the helmet is the articulation between the first two thoracic segments.
  • The paired “helmet buds” Prud’homme et al. reported are more likely to be artefacts of the way they sectioned their specimens, since MikĂł et al. couldn’t find any in treehoppers of a similar developmental stage.

If all of this is correct, that would suggest that the helmet has nothing to do with wings, it’s just like other less extreme outgrowths of the thorax that you find in a large variety of insects.

What about the genes?

If you take a gander at the first treehopper post or Prud’homme et al. (2011) itself, you’ll see that they supported their microscopic observations with gene expression data including two appendage-specific genes and one that they considered specific to wings. However, even I had a note of caution about using Dll/Dlx genes – which seem to be there whenever anything starts sticking out of an animal’s body – as evidence of homology to anything. MikĂł et al. (2012) point out that nubbin, the supposed “wing gene” actually has quite variable roles in wing and other appendage development when you look at more insect species besides fruit flies. The Hth-Dll combo, it appears, is also involved in the development of more obviously non-wing thoracic outgrowths, like beetle horns.

Where does that leave us?

Seeing as I’m still no entomologist, I can’t really take sides in the anatomical arguments. The genetics? What immediately springs to my mind is Keys et al. (1999), and how some butterflies grow their eyespots by the wholesale co-option of a genetic regulatory circuit from wing development. Did the same sort of thing happen to beetles and treehoppers, then?

This, in fact, only reinforces my general opinion about novelties and the nature of genetic evidence. Evolution rarely, if ever, works from scratch, and the boundary between “novelty” and “tinkering” is as blurry as it gets. Thus, “homology” is rarely a clear-cut and straightforward issue. All of that still stands [1], even if treehoppers might have shifted on some sliding scales. (Which direction is an interesting question. Is a re-activated wing homologue more or less “novel” than a generic thoracic outgrowth patterned by some wing circuitry? Does the distinction even make sense?)

All in all, this is getting quite interesting. It feels decidedly like the beginning of a heated debate [2]. I’ll certainly keep an eye out for future episodes of the treehopper saga.


[1] Though I have to say, I have a couple of papers on my reading list that may mess with my opinions… Don’t want to jinx it, so I won’t say more, but I’m hoping to make a post out of them one day.

[2] Or a beautiful friendship. *ducks*



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MikĂł I et al. (2012) On dorsal prothoracic appendages in treehoppers (Hemiptera: Membracidae) and the nature of morphological evidence. PLoS ONE 7:e30137

Prud’homme B et al. (2011) Body plan innovation in treehoppers through the evolution of an extra wing-like appendage. Nature 473:83-86