Belief is for ghost stories and R. Kelly songs about flying.
We go for testable hypotheses followed by careful observation, data collection and refinement of said hypothesis based on our current level of ignorance/knowledge on the subject at hand around these here parts. Now let’s talk about that grammar and use of two different fonts …
The American paddlefish — known for its bizarre, protruding snout and eggs harvested for caviar — duplicated its entire genome about 42 million years ago, according to a new study published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution. This finding may add a new twist to the way scientists study how fins evolved into limbs since the paddlefish is often used as a proxy for a more representative ancestor shared by humans and fishes.
“We found that paddlefish have had their own genome duplication,” said Karen Crow, assistant professor of biology at San Francisco State University. “This creates extra genetic material that adds complexity to comparative studies. It may change the way we interpret studies on limb development.”
In order to study how human limbs develop, scientists compare the limb-building genes found in mice with fin-building genes found in fishes. Previous research on paddlefish has suggested that fishes possessed the genetic toolkit required to grow limbs long before the evolution of the four-limbed creatures (tetrapods) that developed into reptiles, birds, amphibians and mammals.
In the last decade, paddlefish have become a useful benchmark in evolutionary studies because their position on the evolutionary tree makes them a reasonably good proxy for the ancestor of the bony fishes that evolved into tetrapods such as humans. However, the fact that paddlefish underwent a genome duplication could complicate what its genes tell us about the fin-to-limb transition, says Crow.
Why don’t our arms grow from the middle of our bodies? The question isn’t as trivial as it appears. Vertebrae, limbs, ribs, tailbone … in only two days, all these elements take their place in the embryo, in the right spot and with the precision of a Swiss watch.
During the development of an embryo, everything happens at a specific moment. In about 48 hours, it will grow from the top to the bottom, one slice at a time — scientists call this the embryo’s segmentation. “We’re made up of thirty-odd horizontal slices,” explains Denis Duboule, a professor at EPFL and Unige. “These slices correspond more or less to the number of vertebrae we have.”
Every hour and a half, a new segment is built. The genes corresponding to the cervical vertebrae, the thoracic vertebrae, the lumbar vertebrae and the tailbone become activated at exactly the right moment one after another. “If the timing is not followed to the letter, you’ll end up with ribs coming off your lumbar vertebrae,” jokes Duboule. How do the genes know how to launch themselves into action in such a perfectly synchronized manner? “We assumed that the DNA played the role of a kind of clock. But we didn’t understand how.”
When DNA acts like a mechanical clock
Very specific genes, known as “Hox,” are involved in this process. Responsible for the formation of limbs and the spinal column, they have a remarkable characteristic. “Hox genes are situated one exactly after the other on the DNA strand, in four groups. First the neck, then the thorax, then the lumbar, and so on,” explains Duboule. “This unique arrangement inevitably had to play a role.”
The process is astonishingly simple. In the embryo’s first moments, the Hox genes are dormant, packaged like a spool of wound yarn on the DNA. When the time is right, the strand begins to unwind. When the embryo begins to form the upper levels, the genes encoding the formation of cervical vertebrae come off the spool and become activated. Then it is the thoracic vertebrae’s turn, and so on down to the tailbone. The DNA strand acts a bit like an old-fashioned computer punchcard, delivering specific instructions as it progressively goes through the machine.
“A new gene comes out of the spool every ninety minutes, which corresponds to the time needed for a new layer of the embryo to be built,” explains Duboule. “It takes two days for the strand to completely unwind; this is the same time that’s needed for all the layers of the embryo to be completed.”
This system is the first “mechanical” clock ever discovered in genetics. And it explains why the system is so remarkably precise.
The Hox clock is a demonstration of the extraordinary complexity of evolution. One notable property of the mechanism is its extreme stability, explains Duboule. “Circadian or menstrual clocks involve complex chemistry. They can thus adapt to changing contexts, but in a general sense are fairly imprecise. The mechanism that we have discovered must be infinitely more stable and precise. Even the smallest change would end up leading to the emergence of a new species.”
This is why developmental biology (and evolution and molecular biology and everything) is awesome.