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PLoS One. 2008 Oct 3;3(10):e3325. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003325.

The evolution of HoxD-11 expression in the bird wing: insights from Alligator mississippiensis.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.



Comparative morphology identifies the digits of the wing of birds as 1,2 and 3, but they develop at embryological positions that become digits 2, 3 and 4 in other amniotes. A hypothesis to explain this is that a homeotic frame shift of digital identity occurred in the evolution of the bird wing, such that digits 1,2 and 3 are developing from embryological positions 2, 3 and 4. Digit 1 of the mouse is the only digit that shows no late expression of HoxD-11. This is also true for the anterior digit of the bird wing, suggesting this digit is actually a digit 1. If this is the case, we can expect closer relatives of birds to show no HoxD-11 expression only in digit 1. To test this prediction we investigate HoxD-11 expression in crocodilians, the closest living relatives of birds.


Using degenerate primers we cloned a 606 nucleotide fragment of exon 1 of the alligator HoxD-11 gene and used it for whole-mount in-situ detection in alligator embryos. We found that in the pentadactyl forelimbs of alligator, as in the mouse, late expression of HoxD-11 is absent only in digit 1.


The ancestral condition for amniotes is that late-phase HoxD-11 expression is absent only in digit 1. The biphalangeal morphology and lack of HoxD-11 expression of the anterior digit of the wing is like digit 1 of alligator and mouse, but its embryological position as digit 2 is derived. HoxD-11 expression in alligator is consistent with the hypothesis that both digit morphology as well as HoxD-11 expression are shifted towards posterior in the bird wing.

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