Did GDF6 “gene tweak” allow humans to become upright?

The short answer is, “Not really.” But as is often the case, the real story behind so many headlines last week is a bit more complicated.


smh. Links to the first, second, third, and fourth stories.

What are they talking about, Willis?

These headlines, each saying something slightly different, are referring to a study by Indjeian and colleagues published in Cell.  Researchers identified a stretch of DNA that is highly conserved across mammals, or in other words, it is very similar between very different organisms. In humans, however, this conserved region is actually missing (“hCONDEL.306”):

Fig. 4A from Indjeian et al. 2016. A stretch of DNA, "hCONDEL.306" is completely missing in humans (as is another stretch, hCONDEL.305) but otherwise very similar between chimpanzees, monkeys and mice.

Fig. 4A from Indjeian et al. 2016. A stretch of DNA on Chromosome 8, “hCONDEL.306,” is very similar between chimpanzees, macaque monkeys, and mice, but is completely missing in humans (as is another stretch, hCONDEL.305).

That a stretch of DNA should be highly conserved across diverse animal groups suggests purifying natural selection has prevented any mutations from occurring here – alterations to this stretch of DNA negatively affected fitness. But that humans should be missing such a highly conserved region suggests that this deletion came under positive natural selection at some point in human evolution. This strategy, of seeking stretches of DNA that are similar between many animals but very different in humans, has led to the identification of hundreds of genetic underpinnings of human uniqueness. Some of these, such as the case in question, involve deleted sequences and have been termed “hCONDELs,” for “regions with high sequence conservation that are surprisingly deleted in humans” (McLean et al., 2011: 216). Others involve the accumulation of mutations where other animals show few or none (e.g., HACNS1; Prabhakar et al. 2008). In many (most?) cases these are “non-coding” sequences of DNA.

How can “non-coding” DNA help make humans upright?

As was predicted 30 years ago (King and Wilson, 1975), what makes humans different from other animals isn’t so much in the protein-coding DNA (the classical understanding of the term, “genes”), but rather in the control of these protein-coding genes. “Non-coding” means that a stretch of DNA may get transcribed into RNA but is not then translated into proteins. But even though these sequences themselves don’t become anything tangible, many are nevertheless critical in regulating gene expression – when, where and how much a gene gets used. It’s wild stuff. Indeed, “Many human accelerated regions are developmental [gene] enhancers” (Capra et al., 2013).

In the present case, hCONDEL.306 refers to the human-specific deletion of a developmental enhancer located near the GDF6 gene, which is a bone morphogenetic protein. The major finding of the paper, as stated succinctly in the Highlights title page, is that “Humans have lost a conserved regulatory element [hCONDEL.306] controlling GDF6 expression…. Mouse phenotypes suggest that [this] deletion is related to digit shortening in human feet.”

How do they link this “gene tweak” to digit shortening?

Since humans have lost this gene enhancer that is highly conserved in other mammals, Indjeian and team reasoned that the chimpanzee DNA sequence associated with this deletion, retaining the enhancer sequence, is likely the ancestral condition from which the human version evolved. They inserted the chimpanzee version into mouse embryos and watched what happened as they developed. The enhancer was only active in the mice’s back legs, specifically in the cartilage that would later become the lateral toe bones and cells that would become a muscle of the big toe (abductor hallucis). These are areas where humans and chimpanzees differ: our lateral toes are shorter than chimps’, and we only have one abductor hallucis muscle whereas chimpanzees have an additional, longer abductor hallucis  (Aiello and Dean, 2002). So, we’re on our way to seeing how hCONDEL.306 might relate to our big toe or upright walking, as the headlines say.

But this still doesn’t explain how this deletion affects GDF6 gene expression, and therefore what this does for our feet. Pressing onward, the scientists compared the size of certain bones in mice with a normal Gdf6 gene, and those in which the Gdf6 gene was completely turned off (or “knocked out”).  The Gdf6 knock-out mice had shorter lateral toe bones than regular mice, but they also had shorter big toes as well – the previous experiment staining mouse embryos showed the ancestral enhancer was expressed more in the latter toes, not so much the big toe.

Figures 5-6 from Indjeian et al. (2016) sum up the findings. Figure 5 (left) shows that the ancestral version of the GDF6 enhancer (blue staining) is most strongly expressed in the lower limb, especially the fifth toe bone. Figure 6 (right) shows that a lack of GDF6 expression (black bars) results in shorter skull and toe bones. Combining these findings, humans lack a gene enhancer associated with the development of long lateral toes.

Figures 5-6 from Indjeian et al. (2016) sum up the findings. Figure 5 (left) shows that the ancestral version of the GDF6 enhancer (blue staining) is most strongly expressed in the lower half of the body, especially the fifth toe bone. Figure 6 (right) shows that a lack of Gdf6 expression (black bars) results in shorter skull and toe bones. Combining these findings, humans lack a gene enhancer associated with the development of long lateral toes.

hCONDEL.306 doesn’t completely turn off GDF6, so this second experiment doesn’t really tell us exactly what the hCONDEL does. But the results are highly suggestive. Indjeian and team showed that Gdf6 affects toe length, among other skeletal traits, in mice. The ancestral enhancer that humans are missing seems to affect GDF6 activity in the leg/foot only. This illustrates a mechanism of modularity – as the authors state, “Loss of this enhancer would thus preserve normal GDF6 functions in the skull and forelimbs, while confining any … changes to the posterior digits of the hindlimb.” In other words, developmental enhancers allow different parts of the body to evolve independently despite being made by some of the same genes (such as GDF6).

As with any good study, results are intriguing but they raise more questions for future studies. The researchers conducted two experiments to investigate the function of hCONDEL.306: first putting the chimp version in mouse embryos to see where the ancestral enhancer is expressed, and then turning off Gdf6 completely in mice to see what happens. A more direct way to see what hCONDEL.306 does might be to put a longer stretch of the human sequence surrounding GDF6 containing (or rather missing) the ancestral enhancer into mouse embryos. I’m not a molecular biologist so maybe this isn’t possible. But this is important because the ancestral (chimpanzee) enhancer appeared to be most strongly expressed in the little toe, but of course this isn’t our only toe that is short compared to chimps. Similarly, how hCONDEL.306 relates to the abductor hallucis muscle remains in question – does it reduce the size of the intrinsic muscle present in both humans and chimps, or does it prevent development of the longer muscle that chimps have but we lack? We can expect to find hCONDEL.306 in the genomes of Neandertals (and Denisovans?), since they also have short toes, but what would it mean if they retained the ancestral enhancer?

So how does this gene tweak help with upright walking?

This is a really cool paper with important implications for human evolution, but something seems to have been lost in translation between the paper and the headlines (the news pieces themselves are good, though). The upshot of the study is that humans lack a stretch of non-coding DNA, which in chimpanzees (or chimp-ified mice) promotes embryonic development of the lateral toes and a big toe muscle. This may be a genetic basis for at least some aspects of our unique feet that have evolved under natural selection for walking on two legs.

But the headlines misrepresent this result, with words like “led to,” “allowed,” and “caused,” especially when these are followed by “big toe” or “upright walking.” hCONDEL.306 doesn’t really have anything to the big toe bone itself, although it might relate to a muscle affecting our big toe. The only sense in which the “Gene tweak led to humans’ big toe” (first title above) is that hCONDEL.306 might be responsible for our short lateral toes, which make our first toe look big by comparison. The other headlines are misleading since we know from fossil evidence that hominins walked upright long before we have evidence for short toes:

These little piggies get none. Fourth toe bones of living apes and humans (left) and possible hominins from 3-5 million years ago (right).

These little piggies get none. Fourth toe bones of living apes and humans (left) and (probable) hominins from 3-5 million years ago (right). I did my best to get all images to scale.

“Epigenetic,” from the fourth article headline, is simply wrong. Modern day epigenetics is a field concerned with the chemical alterations to the structure of DNA. Even the broad concept of epigenetic as originally devised by Conrad Waddington was about how environments (cellular or outside the body) influence development.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s hard to fit all the important and interesting information from scientific papers into news headlines. Still, it would be good if headlines more accurately portrayed scientific findings, especially avoiding such definitive verbs as “caused.” Especially in the realm of biology, people should know that there’s a lot that we still don’t know, that there’s lots more important work left to be done.


Aiello and Dean, 2002. Human Evolutionary Anatomy. Academic Press.

Capra et al., 2013. Many human accelerated regions are developmental enhancers. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 368: 20130025.

Indjeian et al. 2016. Evolving new skeletal traits by cis-regulatory changes in bone morphogenetic proteins. Cell http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2015.12.007

King and Wilson, 1975. Evolution at two levels in humans and chimpanzees. Science 188: 107-116 DOI: 10.1126/science.1090005

McLean et al., 2011. Human-specific loss of regulatory DNA and the evolution of human-specific traits. Nature 471: 216-219.

Prabhakar et al., 2008. Human-specific gain of function in a developmental enhancer. Science 321: 1346-1350.

Osteology Everywhere: Ilium Nublar

Jurassic Park is objectively the greatest film ever made, so I don’t need to explain why I recently watched it for the bajillionth time. Despite having seen this empirically excellent movie countless times, I finally noticed something I’d never seen before.

Hold on to your butts. What's that on the screen in front of Ray Arnold?

Hold on to your butts – what’s that on the screen in front of John Arnold? (image credit)

The film takes place on the fictitious island “Isla Nublar,” a map of which features prominently in the computer control room when s**t starts to go down. Here’s a clearer screenshot of one of Dennis Nedry‘s monitors:

Isla Nublar from the JP control room. Quiet, all of you! They’re approaching the tyrannosaur paddock…. (image credit)

It dawned on me that the inspiration for this island is none other than MLD 7, a juvenile Australopithecus africanus ilium from the Makapansgat site in South Africa:

Figure 1 from Dart, 1958. Left side is MLD 7 and right is MLD 25. Top row is the lateral view (from the side) and bottom row is the medial view (from the inside).

Figure 1 from Dart, 1958. Left side is MLD 7 and right is MLD 25. Top row is the lateral view (from the side) and bottom row is the medial view (from the inside). These two hip bones are from the left side of the body (see the pelvis figure in this post). Note the prominent anterior inferior iliac spine on MLD 7, a quintessential feature of bipeds.

Isla Nublar is basically MLD 7 viewed at an angle so that appears relatively narrower from side to side:

MLD at a slightly oblique view (or stretched top to bottom) magically transforms into Isla Nublar.

MLD 7 at a slightly oblique view (or stretched top to bottom) magically transforms into Isla Nublar.

It’s rather remarkable that some of the most complete pelvic remains we have for australopithecines are two juveniles of similar developmental ages and sizes from the same site. In both, the iliac crest is not fused, and joints of the acetabulum (hip socket) hadn’t fused together yet. The immaturity of these two fossils matches what is seen prior to puberty in humans and chimpanzees. Berge (1998) also noted that MLD 7, serving as an archetype for juvenile Australopithecus, is similar in shape to juvenile humans, whereas adult Australopithecus (represented by Sts 14 and AL 288) are much flatter and wider side to side. Berge took this pattern of ontogenetic variation to match an ape-like pattern of ilium shape growth. This suggests a role of heterochrony in the evolution of human pelvic shape, or as Berge (1998: 451) put it, “Parallel change in pelvic shape between human ontogeny and hominid phylogeny.” In layman’s terms, ‘similar changes in both pelvic growth and pelvis evolution.’

Why Lucy, what sweet kicks you had

For decades people have debated whether Australopithecus afarensis was an obligate biped like us, or whether our ancestor was a little less lithe in life on land. They asked, sort of, “Would Lucy have rocked some sweet Air Jordans, or would she have put some flat-foot orthotics in her new kicks?”

Carol Ward and colleagues report on a new fourth metatarsal of Australopithecus afarensis from Hadar in Ethiopia, over 3.2 million years old. The foot bone shows that A. afarensis had the two foot arches that we humans enjoy today.
Metatarsals are the longbones comprising much of the foot right before your silly-looking toes. One exceptional thing about our metatarsals compared to our ape cousins is that they contribute to two arches, one running front-to-back and another side-to-side. The arches provide critical support to our foot for bipedal stance, and a little Fred-Astaire-springiness as our foot hits the ground and then lifts off again when walking and running and sashaying.
The new A. afarensis metatarsal (AL 333-160, right) shows that by 3.2 million years ago, our ancestors had these arches, too. The twisting and angulation of the shaft relative to the base show these arches are similar to humans and our later fossil ancestors, whereas apes’ MT4s tend to be less twisted and angled. Such morphology was hinted at by the famous Laetoli footprints from Tanzania, around 3.7 million years ago, also attributed to A. afarensis. Other evidence from the skeleton suggested Lucy was a biped and nothing else, and so this new find from Hadar further solidifies the idea that some of our skeletal adaptations to bipedalism are ancient indeed.
UPDATE: Thinking about this finding in the shower this morning, I recalled that buddies Jerry DeSilva and Zach Throckmorton recently published a study where they concluded, based on the morphology of the end of the tibia, that A. afarensis probably had at least a rear-foot arch. Interestingly, though, they found some hominid specimens probably had “asymptomatic flatfoot.” Lucy (AL 288) was among these, so maybe she’d be sporting orthoticized Jordans after all.
The Papers
DeSilva JM, & Throckmorton ZJ (2010). Lucy’s flat feet: the relationship between the ankle and rearfoot arching in early hominins. PloS one, 5 (12) PMID: 21203433

Ward, C., Kimbel, W., & Johanson, D. (2011). Complete Fourth Metatarsal and Arches in the Foot of Australopithecus afarensis Science, 331 (6018), 750-753 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201463