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A New Look at Vertebrate Evolution

Dartmouth researchers and colleagues from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom have traced the beginnings of complex life (vertebrates) to microRNA. The researchers argue that the evolution of microRNAs, which regulate gene expression, are behind the origin of early vertebrates.

Kevin Peterson and Alysha Heimberg
Kevin Peterson and Alysha Heimberg (Photo by Joseph Mehling ´69)

“This study not only points the way to understanding the evolutionary origin of our own lineage, but it also helps us to understand how our own genome was assembled in deep time,” says Kevin Peterson, associate professor of biological sciences and an author on the paper.

Their study was published in the Feb. 11, 2008, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Peterson worked with graduate student Alysha Heimberg, biological sciences Research Assistant Vanessa Moy, and Lorenzo Sempere, an instructor in the Department of Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School. Philip Donoghue of Bristol University’s Department of Earth Sciences was also a co-author. They showed that microRNAs, a class of tiny molecules only recently discovered residing within what has usually been considered junk DNA, are hugely diverse in even the most lowly of vertebrates, but relatively few are found in the genomes of our invertebrate relatives.

“There was an explosive increase in the number of new microRNAs added to the genome of vertebrates, and this is unparalleled in evolutionary history,” says Heimberg.

The team studied the genomics of primitive living fishes, such as sharks and lampreys, and their spineless relatives, like the sea squirt. By reconstructing the acquisition history of microRNAs shared between humans and mice, the researchers determined that the highest rate of microRNA innovation in the vertebrate lineage occurred before the divergence between the living jawless fishes like the lamprey and the jawed fishes like the shark, but after the divergence of vertebrates from their invertebrate chordate relatives, such as the sea squirt.

Co-author Donoghue adds, “Most of these new genes are required for the growth of organs that are unique to vertebrates, such as the liver, pancreas and brain.  Therefore, the origin of vertebrates and the origin of these genes is no coincidence.”

This work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts.



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Last Updated: 12/17/08