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.

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.

References

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.

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Osteology Everywhere: Bacon or first rib?

I went to a cafe today to eat breakfast and get some work done. Write, write, write. It’s important to be properly nourished to ensure maximal productivity.

The Ron Swanson diet.

The Ron Swanson diet.

But I was aghast to behold the food they placed before me:

More bacon, please.

What on earth is this?

First of all, this is not a sufficient amount of bacon.

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Secondably, this bacon is a spitting image of a first rib:

First ribs, from left to right: Human, chimpanzee, bacon. First two images from eSkeletons.org.

First ribs from the right side of the body, viewed from the top. From left to right: Human, chimpanzee, bacon. First two images from eSkeletons.org.

At the top of the ribcage, just beneath the clavicle and subclavian artery and vein, the first rib is much shorter and flatter than the rest of the ribs. As Jess Beck at Bone Broke points out, “The first and second rib give something of an awkward ‘slow song at a middle-school dance’ kind of a hug, while the lower ribs provide a more comfortable and self-assured embrace.” I mean, just lookit how sheepishly the bacon dances with the eggs in the first picture, it has ‘middle-school dance’ written all over it.

But the bacon is not totally identical to the human and chimpanzee counterparts. It’s missing their anteromedially sweeping arc, and the distal portion reaching out to the egg is fairly straight. This suggests we’re probably missing much of the original distal end. Posteriorly or dorsally (toward the bottom in the pic), it also appears to be missing much of the lateral portion including the vertebral facet. In this regard, this bacon rib looks a lot like the first rib of Homo naledi:

Full stack of ribs. From left to right: Human, bacon, Homo naledi, Dmanisi Homo erectus, Australopithecus sediba (x2), Australopithecus afarensis specimen "Lucy," Ardipithecus ramidus, and chimpanzee. Images not to scale except Lucy and Ardi.

Full stack of ribs. Left to right: Human, bacon, Homo naledi, Dmanisi Homo erectus, Australopithecus sediba (x2), Australopithecus afarensis specimen “Lucy,” Ardipithecus ramidus, and chimpanzee. Images not to scale except Lucy and Ardi. Image credits given below.

It is hard to make good homologous comparisons among these fossils and bacon, since so many are so incomplete. But it looks like the hominins are relatively longer (front to back, or dorsoventrally) compared to the chimpanzee. That is, oriented along the rib “neck,” the ventral/distal end projects far more medially beyond the proximal vertebral facet in the chimp, while in the hominins the two ends are more flush.  Ardi is really incomplete and so very hard to orient, but it may be more like the chimp (I think it needs to be rotated to the right more, to make the lateral edge more vertical like all the other specimens).

It will be interesting to see what my colleagues working on the Homo naledi thorax have to say about rib shapes and their functional importance, hopefully not too long from now.

Anyway, I really wish I had more bacon.

Fossil rib sources
ResearchBlogging.orgDmanisi Homo erectus: Lordkipanidze D, Jashashvili T, Vekua A, Ponce de León MS, Zollikofer CP, Rightmire GP, Pontzer H, Ferring R, Oms O, Tappen M, Bukhsianidze M, Agusti J, Kahlke R, Kiladze G, Martinez-Navarro B, Mouskhelishvili A, Nioradze M, & Rook L (2007). Postcranial evidence from early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia. Nature, 449 (7160), 305-10 PMID: 17882214

Australopithecus sediba: Schmid P, Churchill SE, Nalla S, Weissen E, Carlson KJ, de Ruiter DJ, & Berger LR (2013). Mosaic morphology in the thorax of Australopithecus sediba. Science, 340 (6129) PMID: 23580537

Homo naledi: Morphosource.

Australopithecus afarensis and Ardipithecus ramidus: White TD, Asfaw B, Beyene Y, Haile-Selassie Y, Lovejoy CO, Suwa G, & WoldeGabriel G (2009). Ardipithecus ramidus and the paleobiology of early hominids. Science, 326 (5949), 75-86 PMID: 19810190

Osteology Everywhere: Vertebeer Fest

This past weekend was witness to the Summer Beer Festival, the annual showcase of Michigan’s brewing splendor. Dozens of breweries brought out batches of beer, from classics we know and love, to inspired innovations meriting a MacArthur Fellowship. There was an embeerrassment of boozes. Dark Horse Brewing Company, from Marshall, MI, put on quite the show:

Dark  Horse Brewing Co. pumping out the brews and blasting t-shirts into the crowd.

Dark Horse Brewing Co. pumping out the brews and blasting t-shirts into the crowd.

Besides towering over the bacchanal hordes, the Dark Horse beer fort also offered IPAs infused with pretty much anything that might pair well with hops. They even steeped habañero peppers in one, and it was maximally boss.

Beer still my heart.

Beer still my heart.

Having sampled only a small part of rich the smorgasbord on tap, a rest by the river was in order. The Festival was on the banks of the mighty Huron River, an excellent place to sit and sip Arcadia‘s scotch ale, taking in the evening under cloud-peppered, cerulean skies. Such a calm and relaxing setting would surely offer respite for a brain besieged by bones. Right?

Every year for the Festival they replace the river water with beer.

Every year for the Festival they replace the river water with beer.

Wrong! Peering through beer goggles over the shimmer of the river, seeking signs of Bigfoots lurking on the opposite shore, I locked eyes with a large, wooden vertebral body.

No ordinary tree stump

An eyeless frown marks the ventral surface of this centrum.

The human spine is composed of anywhere from 31-34 vertebrae (not counting the coccyx or tail bone). The body or “centrum” is the large, blocky portion of the bone, which is separated from other such bodies by intervertebral discs; it is literally a pile of bodies, stacked one on top of the other. And the intervertebral discs are remnants of the notochord, the embryonic structure that unites you and me and all other humans with all other animals known as chordates. Anyway, kiss my grits if this old tree stump across the mighty Huron River here doesn’t look like a lower thoracic or upper lumbar vertebral body, the metaphoric shark fin of a giant trunkless human waiting to pounce from the placid waters.

a) Our mystery vertebra. b) a lumbar vertebra from White et al. (2012). c) views of the right and front side of the Australopithecus africanus fossil StW H41, from Sanders (1998, Fig. 1).

a) Our mystery river vertebra. b) a lumbar vertebra from White et al. (2012). c) views of the right and front side of the Australopithecus africanus fossil StW H8/H41, modified from Fig. 1 of Sanders (1998).

Thinking on it, our mystery river vertebra doesn’t just look like any old human centrum, it is a ringer for the second lumbar vertebra of StW H8/H41, a series of the 11th thoracic to 4th lumbar vertebrae of Australopithecus africanus from Sterkfontein (see the red arrow in c, above). Sanders (1998) notes that this short segment of an early hominin spine shows clear adaptation to walking upright like we humans do today, although the size of the vertebral bodies is both absolutely and relatively small compared to ours, just as is seen in other Australopithecus fossils.

And what better way to celebrate this monumental discovery than returning to the Beer Festival – hooray beer!