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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Nov 25;105(47):18419-23. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0805154105. Epub 2008 Nov 10.

Identification of reptilian genes encoding hair keratin-like proteins suggests a new scenario for the evolutionary origin of hair.

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  • 1Department of Dermatology, Medical University of Vienna, Vienna 1090, Austria.


The appearance of hair is one of the main evolutionary innovations in the amniote lineage leading to mammals. The main components of mammalian hair are cysteine-rich type I and type II keratins, also known as hard alpha-keratins or "hair keratins." To determine the evolutionary history of these important structural proteins, we compared the genomic loci of the human hair keratin genes with the homologous loci of the chicken and of the green anole lizard Anolis carolinenis. The genome of the chicken contained one type II hair keratin-like gene, and the lizard genome contained two type I and four type II hair keratin-like genes. Orthology of the latter genes and mammalian hair keratins was supported by gene locus synteny, conserved exon-intron organization, and amino acid sequence similarity of the encoded proteins. The lizard hair keratin-like genes were expressed most strongly in the digits, indicating a role in claw formation. In addition, we identified a novel group of reptilian cysteine-rich type I keratins that lack homologues in mammals. Our data show that cysteine-rich alpha-keratins are not restricted to mammals and suggest that the evolution of mammalian hair involved the co-option of pre-existing structural proteins.

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