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May 23, 2006

The case of the hobbled hedgehog

Or why whales don’t walk:

An international group of scientists led by Hans Thewissen, Ph.D., a professor of anatomy at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, has used developmental data from contemporary spotted dolphins and fossils of ancient whales to try to pinpoint the genetic changes that could have caused whales, dolphins and porpoises to lose their hind limbs.
More than 50 million years ago the ancestors of whales and dolphins were four-footed land animals, not unlike large dogs. They became the sleek swimmers we recognize today during the next 15 million years, losing their hind limbs in a dramatic example of evolutionary change.
… In findings to be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists say the gradual shrinkage of the whales’ hind limbs over 15 million years was the result of slowly accumulated genetic changes that influenced the size of the limbs and that these changes happened sometime late in development, during the fetal period.
However, the actual loss of the hind limb occurred much further along in the evolutionary process, when a drastic change occurred to inactivate a gene essential for limb development. This gene - called Sonic hedgehog - functions during the first quarter of gestation in the embryonic period of the animals’ development, before the fetal period.
In all limbed vertebrates, Sonic hedgehog is required for normal limbs to develop beyond the knee and elbow joints. Because ancient whales’ hind limbs remained perfectly formed all the way to the toes even as they became smaller suggests that Sonic hedgehog was still functioning to pattern the limb skeleton.
The new research shows that, near the end of 15 million years, with the hind limbs of ancient whales nonfunctional and all but gone, lack of Sonic hedgehog clearly comes into play. While the animals still may have developed embryonic hind limb buds, as happens in today’s spotted dolphins, they didn’t have the Sonic hedgehog required to grow a complete or even partial limb, although it is active elsewhere in the embryo.
… “Whales went through this remarkable transformation to become more like the ancestral fish,” [said Clifford Tabin, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School]. “Convergence of evolutionary studies and developmental genetics give us another piece in this growing tapestry of how genetic changes lead to morphological change. It is a remarkable process that was achieved simply and led to profound consequences in how whales were able to survive. Only now in the last five years are we developing this understanding of how the world of evolution is controlled genetically.”

I’m sure the Discovery Institute is already preparing a press release.

Posted by Stephen at 12:31 PM in Evolution | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

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