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UF scientists discover evolutionary origin of fins, limbs

Performance on the dance floor may not always show it, but people are rarely born with two left feet. We have genes that instruct our arms and legs to grow in the right places and point in the right directions. They also provide for the spaces between our fingers and toes and every other formative detail of our limbs.

Evolutionarily speaking, the genetic instructions used to construct and position our limbs were being perfected more than half a billion years ago in fishes, not along the sides of the body where the fins that preceded human arms and legs sprouted, but at the midline that runs along the backbone and belly.

This midline -- think of the dorsal, tail and anal fins of a fish - is where the genetic template to produce fins originated, about 100 million years before paired fins evolved and about 200 million years before paired fins evolved into limbs, according to University of Florida genetics researchers. The findings, published online today in the journal Nature, also provide insight into the evolutionary history of genes involved in human birth defects.

"Given that paired fins made their evolutionary debut at a particular location on the sides of the body, intuitively one would think the genetic tools for fin development would be brought together in that place," said developmental biologist Martin Cohn, Ph.D., an associate professor with the UF departments of zoology and anatomy and cell biology and a member of the UF Genetics Institute. "We've discovered that the genetic circuitry for building limbs first appeared in an entirely different place - the midline of the animal."

The appearance of paired fins on the sides of early vertebrates was a major evolutionary innovation toward fin - and eventually limb - locomotion, Cohn said. The earliest fishes lacked paired fins, similar to the modern-day lamprey - a species of jawless fish with a dorsal fin and tail but no side fins - considered by biologists to share many featu
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Source:University of Florida


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