Putting the cart before the… snake?

Time to reexamine some assumptions (again)! And also, talk about Hox genes, because do I even need a reason?

Hox genes often come up when we look for explanations for various innovations in animal body plans – the digits of land vertebrates, the limbless abdomens of insects, the various feeding and walking and swimming appendages of crustaceans, the strongly differentiated vertebral columns of mammals, and so on.

Speaking of differentiated vertebral columns, here’s one group I’d always thought of as having pretty much the exact opposite of them: snakes. Vertebral columns are patterned, among other things, by Hox genes. Boundaries between different types of vertebrae such as cervical (neck) and thoracic (the ones bearing the ribcage) correspond to boundaries of Hox gene expression in the embryo – e.g. the thoracic region in mammals begins where HoxC6 starts being expressed.

In mammals like us, and also in archosaurs (dinosaurs/birds, crocodiles and extinct relatives thereof), these boundaries can be really obvious and sharply defined – here’s Wikipedia’s crocodile skeleton for an example:

In contrast, the spine of a snake (example from Wikipedia below) just looks like a very long ribcage with a wee tail:

Snakes, of course, are rather weird vertebrates, and weird things make us sciencey types dig for an explanation.

Since Hox genes appear to be responsible for the regionalisation of vertebral columns in mammals and archosaurs, it stands to reason that they’d also have something to do with the comparative lack of regionalisation (and the disappearance of limbs) seen in snakes and similar creatures. In a now classic paper, Cohn and Tickle (1999) observed that unlike in chicks, the Hox genes that normally define the neck and thoracic regions are kind of mashed together in embryonic pythons. Below is a simple schematic from the paper showing where three Hox genes are expressed along the body axis in these two animals. (Green is HoxB5, blue is C8, red is C6.)

Cohn_Tickle1999_hoxRegions

As more studies examined snake embryos, others came up with different ideas about the patterning of serpentine spines. Woltering et al. (2009) had a more in-depth look at Hox gene expression in both snakes and caecilians (limbless amphibians) and saw that there are in fact regions ruled by different Hoxes in these animals, if a little fuzzier than you’d expect in a mammal or bird – but they don’t appear to translate to different anatomical regions. Here’s their summary of their findings, showing the anteriormost limit of the activity of various Hox genes in a corn snake compared to a mouse:

Woltering_etal2009-mouse_vs_snake

Such differences aside, both of the above studies operated on the assumption that the vertebral column of snakes is “deregionalised” – i.e. that it evolved by losing well-defined anatomical regions present in its ancestors. But is that actually correct? Did snakes evolve from more regionalised ancestors, and did they then lose this regionalisation?

Head and Polly (2015) argue that the assumption of deregionalisation is a bit stinky. First, that super-long ribcage of snakes does in fact divide into several regions, and these regions respect the usual boundaries of Hox expression. Second, ordinary lizard-shaped lizards (from which snakes descended back in the days of the dinosaurs) are no more regionalised than snakes.

The study is mostly a statistical analysis of the shapes of vertebrae. Using an approach called geometric morphometrics, it turned these shapes from dozens of squamate (snake and lizard) species into sets of coordinates, which could then be compared to see how much they vary along the spine and whether the variation is smooth and continuous or clustered into different regions. The authors evaluated hypotheses regarding the number of distinct regions to see which one(s) best explained the observed variation. They also compared the squamates to alligators (representing archosaurs).

The results were partly what you’d expect. First, alligators showed much more overall variation in vertebral shape than squamates. Note that that’s all squamates – leggy lizards are nearly (though not quite) as uniform as their snake-like relatives. However, in all squamates, the best-fitting model of regionalisation was still one with either three or four distinct regions in front of the hips/cloaca, and in the majority, it was four, the same number as the alligator had.

Moreover, there appeared to be no strong support for an evolutionary pattern to the number of regions – specifically, none of the scenarios in which the origin of snake-like body plans involved the loss of one or more regions were particularly favoured by the data. There was also no systematic variation in the relative lengths of various regions; the idea that snakes in general have ridiculously long thoraxes is not supported by this analysis.

In summary, snakes might show a little less variation in vertebral shape than their closest relatives, but they certainly didn’t descend from alligator-style sharply regionalised ancestors, and they do still have regionalised spines.

Hox gene expression is not known for most of the creatures for which vertebral shapes were analysed, but such data do exist for mammals (mice, here), alligators, and corn snakes. What is known about different domains of Hox gene activation in these three animals turns out to match the anatomical boundaries defined by the models pretty well. In the mouse and alligator, Hox expression boundaries are sharp, and the borders of regions fall within one vertebra of them.

In the snake, the genetic and morphological boundaries are both gradual, but the boundaries estimated by the best model are always within the fuzzy boundary region of an appropriate Hox gene expression domain. Overall, the relationship between Hox genes and regions of the spine is pretty consistent in all three species.

To finish off, the authors make the important point that once you start turning to the fossil record and examining extinct relatives of mammals, or archosaurs, or squamates, or beasties close to the common ancestor of all three groups (collectively known as amniotes), you tend to find something less obviously regionalised than living mammals or archosaurs – check out this little figure from Head and Polly (2015) to see what they’re talking about:

Head_Polly2015-phylogeny_of_spines

(Moving across the tree, Seymouria is an early relative of amniotes but not quite an amniote; Captorhinus is similarly related to archosaurs and squamates, Uromastyx is the spiny-tailed lizard, Lichanura is a boa, Thrinaxodon is a close relative of mammals from the Triassic, and Mus, of course, is everyone’s favourite rodent. Note how alligators and mice really stand out with their ribless lower backs and suchlike.)

Although they don’t show stats for extinct creatures, Head and Polly argue that mammals and archosaurs, not snakes, are the weird ones when it comes to vertebral regionalisation. For most of amniote evolution, the norm was the more subtle version seen in living squamates. It was only during the origin of mammals and archosaurs that boundaries were sharpened and differences between regions magnified. Nice bit of convergent/parallel evolution there!

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References:

Cohn MJ & Tickle C (1999) Developmental basis of limblessness and axial patterning in snakes. Nature 399:474-479

Head JJ & Polly PD (2015) Evolution of the snake body form reveals homoplasy in amniote Hox gene function. Nature 520:86-89

Woltering JM et al. (2009) Axial patterning in snakes and caecilians: evidence for an alternative interpretation of the Hox code. Developmental Biology 332:82-89

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

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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

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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?)

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

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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.)

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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

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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.

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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

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

More genes from scratch

Following on from the yeast “proto-gene” study, I’ve started paying more attention to news about gene birth from non-coding DNA. (Or “junk” DNA, if you will, though “junk” is… something of a misnomer :-P) The yeast paper explored protein-coding genes in the process of birth. This new one I found in PLoS Genetics looks at genes that have already been born, and argues that the sequences they came from were functional long before they began to serve as templates for proteins.

Paternity testing for genes

So how do you know that a protein-coding gene came from non-coding DNA? Xie et al. (2012) looked specifically for genes born along the ape lineage, that is, the group that includes gibbons, orangs, chimps, gorillas and ourselves. They searched for human genes that had no protein-coding homologue in non-apes including rhesus macaques, mice, dogs and a handful of other mammals, but did match some of the other animals’ DNA sequence. It was also important that there were no other similar sequences in the human genome itself, which might have indicated that the “new” gene actually originated by duplication.

To ascertain that the selected genes represented gene birth in the ape lineage as opposed to a dying gene in other mammals, they also looked at the sequence changes that garbled the would-be protein product of the non-ape sequences. If these are the same in all non-ape versions of a gene, that probably means that they were inherited from the common ancestor of apes and all these species, that is, the non-coding version of the gene came first. Only genes that really seemed to have been born in our lineage were kept.

In the end, they came up with 24 genes that passed all muster. Some of these coded for proteins in both chimps and humans, others only in humans. Based on RNA-sequencing data from rhesus macaques, 20 non-coding versions of these genes were active in monkeys – and this is where things get interesting.

Function in the junkyard

The big question the team asked was this: are these non-coding RNAs just random noise in transcription, or are they already functional even without a protein product? They decided to answer this question by looking at the structure and expression patterns of the RNAs in macaques, chimps and humans.

By “structure”, they mean how the RNA is edited after it’s transcribed from the gene sitting in the DNA. The RNA from most genes in animals and other eukaryotes isn’t taken straight through protein synthesis. First, pieces called introns are chopped out and the rest (called exons) are spliced together to yield the final template for the protein.* When the researchers looked at RNA sequencing results from the three primates, they found that the non-coding sequences in macaques were cut and joined at the same points that the protein-coding human sequences were: a bunch of RNA sequences from macaques spanned both sides of a human splice site, and contained none of the intron in between. Such conservation, the authors argue, is indicative of functionality.

Expression patterns also suggested that the macaque sequences weren’t just noise: when they compared the abundance of the different RNAs between different tissues in the three primates, Xie et al. found that the non-coding RNAs weren’t just expressed all over the place – they were significantly more abundant in some parts of the body than others. This pattern was consistent across species: a sequence that was most abundant in the macaque’s brain was also likely to be brain-specific in humans, even though the macaque version didn’t code for a protein and the human gene did. (By the way, a lot of the 24 were most active in the brain, which is apparently something of a trend among new human genes regardless of their mode of origin. Guess our brains evolved rather a lot in the last few million years ;))

This is very cool, but I’m kind of worried about the arguments used for functionality. Maybe this is just me being a newbie in this area, but I’m not sure that useless non-coding RNAs should be expressed all over the place. One of the salient features of the 24 genes in this study is that they are nearby other genes, sometimes even overlapping them. In any case, they are close enough to use the switches that normally regulate the activity of the other gene(s). That would mean that they’d be most highly expressed wherever their neighbours are, which doesn’t depend on them having a function. If some of them happened to acquire proteing coding potential by mutation, presumably it’d only be kept by natural selection if the resulting proteins did something useful in those places, hence the conservation of expression patterns.

Likewise, splice sites may well arise by accident (they aren’t all that complex), and they don’t have to disappear just because a mutation somewhere else makes the sequence suitable for protein synthesis. Though in fact, splice site conservation sounds more convincing than expression conservation to me as far as arguments for function go. Because splice sites can come and go quite easily, there’s no reason they should be particularly conserved between any two sequences unless they’re important. And the splice sites can only be important if the sequence they’re in does something. Who cares where you cut a strand of random RNA that’ll only end up eaten by housekeeping enzymes anyway?

So, while I get all excited about the whole new genes side of things, and I love this sort of genomic detective work, I think I still have to sleep on that point about function coming before protein. It’s a pity they didn’t check if any of the “non-coding” RNAs in macaques (and chimps) were occasionally translated into a protein, albeit a smaller one than the human counterpart. The yeast people did that and it was awesome, and it would have been such an informative thing to do in this case.

(Also, it would have been darn cool if they’d tried knocking out some of them and seeing if they got screwed up monkeys, but let’s be realistic. Macaques don’t breed like mice, they take a hell of a long time to grow up, and we’re kinda reluctant to mistreat our close relatives like that. You’d have to be comic book supervillain insane to embark on that experiment.)

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*This may sound like a weird way to run a genome, but it’s actually quite good for making more than one product from the same gene. It’s pretty important in real life – nearly all human genes with multiple exons are spliced in at least two different ways, and many genetic diseases originate from messed up splicing.

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Reference:

Xie C et al. (2012) Hominoid-specific de novo protein-coding genes originating from long non-coding RNAs. PLoS Genetics 8:e1002942