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How Manatees, Fish, and Mice

Lose Their Legs
by Erika Williams

anatees gently paddling on Kingsley determined that manatees had asymmetrical
the surface of warm waters pelvic bones - the left pelvic bones are larger than their
right pelvic bones. Though initially this trait may not appear
have revealed a startling important, Kingsley had found a similar trend in distinct
connection with fish and mice. These populations of threespine stickleback, a species of fish that
once had pelvic fins. Larger left pelvic bones also pervade
aquatic herbivores are mammals that evolved in these populations of fish now lacking pelvic fins.
from four-legged ancestors into legless swimmers. Stanford What do these legless, asymmetrical animals teach us
Professor David Kingsley of the Developmental Biology about evolution? Kingsley discovered that the single gene
Department has recently unraveled one of the secrets Pitx1 is present and mutated in both legless manatees and
behind their evolutionary development, demonstrating in the populations of stickleback fish lacking pelvic fins.
that a single gene known as Pitx1 can affect highly divergent Kingsley’s research in 2004 on stickleback fish showed that
species. different populations had evolved using this Pitx1 mutation
Discovery of the Pitx1 Gene in such far-flung regions as Iceland and Vancouver. He
Through research at the Stanford School of Medicine, proved the gene was single and identical by cross-breeding

The same mutations have been used for the same purposes
in species that parted ways tens of millions of years ago.
the different populations of sticklebacks
through in vitro fertilization. Along
with Bjarni Jonsson of the Institute of
Freshwater Fisheries in Iceland, Kingsley
found that all progeny of the fish lacking
hind fins retained that characteristic, but
when either population was cross-bred
with seafaring fish with pelvic fins, all of
the next generation had intact pelvic fins.
When Pitx1 is mutated in mice, the
same effect present in stickleback fish
lacking pelvic fins occurs, but with fatal
Photo Credit: Lynne Lancaster

consequences. Not only are the mice

born legless and with asymmetrical pelvic
bones, but the mutation also affects other
characteristics necessary for life.

Finding Pitx1 gene expression in

different species
Inspired by these new findings about
Mice share a commonality with fish and manatees sticklebacks and mice, Kingsley decided

32 stanford scientific

Research on
mechanisms of
evolution in one
species can teach
about more
Photo Credit: Bruin Ramsdell


Photo Credit: Troutnut.com

Above: A Florida manatee swims about
legless because of one gene mutation.
Right: A threespine stickleback fish.

to investigate other species

that evolved from four-legged
ancestors but had since lost their
legs, such as whales, snakes, and
manatees. In 2006, he contacted
manatee researcher Dr. Sentiel Rommel of the Florida Kingsley, along with Ecology and Evolution Professor
Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, who had 114 manatee Michael Bell from the State University of New York at Stony
pelvic bones from autopsies that Kingsley could weigh. Brook and Assistant Biology Professor Michael Shapiro
Almost all of these bones demonstrated a 10% increase in from the College of Science at the University of Utah,
the weight of the left pelvic bone over the right. Fish, mice, mentioned several other examples. One of these is a gene
and manatees all show the same legless, asymmetrical that determines sodium-channel resistance to neurotoxins
marks from the same single mutation in Pitx1. in snakes and clams, species in different phyla. The same
As manatees and stickleback fish are distinct species mutation is used for the same purpose in species that
far apart in the evolutionary time chart, it seems unlikely parted ways tens of millions of years ago.
that one gene would have arisen separately in the different Despite the enormous number of genes and even
species and then would develop the same mutation. A larger number of possible mutations, a few genes can be
single gene was not thought to affect such a broad structural responsible for the same changes in different species. More
change as eliminating legs or pelvic fins because successful excitingly, a single gene can affect change in genetic lines
mutations tend to avoid pleiotropic genes, genes that affect that diverged long ago. S
many characteristics. In mice, Pitx1 mutations can lead
to death because they fatally affect other mechanisms. In ERIKA WILLIAMS is a freshman considering a major in Science, Technology, and
sticklebacks, mutated Pitx1 still fulfills its other functions, Society, with a minor in Psychology. In addition to writing about scientific
such as working in the thymus and olfactory organs, but it discoveries, she enjoys classical music, tutoring, eating desserts, and hanging
affects the pelvic regions. In these fish, the Pitx1 mutation out with friends.
is successful because only a portion of the mutant gene is
Pitx1 is not alone To Learn More:
Remarkably, Pitx1 is not the only gene that has affected Read the departmental website of Dr. David Kingsley: http://med.
the same changes across species that branched apart long stanford.edu/profiles/David_Kingsley
ago. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

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