Tweaking the beak: Retracing the bird’s beak to its dinosaur origins, in the laboratory
Scientists have successfully replicated the molecular processes that led from dinosaur snouts to the first bird beaks.Guambat reckons there's a new reality show in the works.
Using the fossil record as a guide, a research team led by Yale paleontologist and developmental biologist Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar and Harvard developmental biologist Arhat Abzhanov conducted the first successful reversion of a bird’s skull features. The scientists replicated ancestral molecular development to transform chicken embryos in a laboratory into specimens with a snout and palate configuration similar to that of small dinosaurs such as Velociraptor and Archaeopteryx.
“The beak is a crucial part of the avian feeding apparatus, and is the component of the avian skeleton that has perhaps diversified most extensively and most radically — consider flamingos, parrots, hawks, pelicans, and hummingbirds, among others,” Bhullar explained. “Yet little work has been done on what exactly a beak is, anatomically, and how it got that way either evolutionarily or developmentally.”
The team looked at gene expression in the embryos of emus, alligators, lizards, and turtles. The researchers discovered that both major living lineages of birds (the common neognaths and the rarer paleognaths) differ from the major lineages of non-bird reptiles (crocodiles, turtles, and lizards) and from mammals in having a unique, median gene expression zone of two different facial development genes early in embryonic development. This median gene expression had previously only been observed in chickens.
Using small-molecule inhibitors to eliminate the activity of the proteins produced by the bird-specific, median signaling zone in chicken embryos, the researchers were able to induce the ancestral molecular activity and the ancestral anatomy. Not only did the beak structure revert, but the process also caused the palatine bone on the roof of the mouth to go back to its ancestral state. “This was unexpected and demonstrates the way in which a single, simple developmental mechanism can have wide-ranging and unexpected effects,” Bhullar said.
Bhullar noted that this same approach could be used to investigate the underlying developmental mechanisms of a host of great evolutionary transformations. “Our goal here was to understand the molecular underpinnings of an important evolutionary transition, not to create a ‘dino-chicken’ simply for the sake of it,” said Bhullar, lead author of the study, published online May 12 in the journal Evolution.
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