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Mol Biol Evol. 2012 May;29(5):1441-50. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msr310. Epub 2011 Dec 13.

The voltage-gated potassium channel subfamily KQT member 4 (KCNQ4) displays parallel evolution in echolocating bats.

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Institute of Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Institutes for Advanced Interdisciplinary Research, East China Normal University, Shanghai, China.


Bats are the only mammals that use highly developed laryngeal echolocation, a sensory mechanism based on the ability to emit laryngeal sounds and interpret the returning echoes to identify objects. Although this capability allows bats to orientate and hunt in complete darkness, endowing them with great survival advantages, the genetic bases underlying the evolution of bat echolocation are still largely unknown. Echolocation requires high-frequency hearing that in mammals is largely dependent on somatic electromotility of outer hair cells. Then, understanding the molecular evolution of outer hair cell genes might help to unravel the evolutionary history of echolocation. In this work, we analyzed the molecular evolution of two key outer hair cell genes: the voltage-gated potassium channel gene KCNQ4 and CHRNA10, the gene encoding the α10 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subunit. We reconstructed the phylogeny of bats based on KCNQ4 and CHRNA10 protein and nucleotide sequences. A phylogenetic tree built using KCNQ4 amino acid sequences showed that two paraphyletic clades of laryngeal echolocating bats grouped together, with eight shared substitutions among particular lineages. In addition, our analyses indicated that two of these parallel substitutions, M388I and P406S, were probably fixed under positive selection and could have had a strong functional impact on KCNQ4. Moreover, our results indicated that KCNQ4 evolved under positive selection in the ancestral lineage leading to mammals, suggesting that this gene might have been important for the evolution of mammalian hearing. On the other hand, we found that CHRNA10, a gene that evolved adaptively in the mammalian lineage, was under strong purifying selection in bats. Thus, the CHRNA10 amino acid tree did not show echolocating bat monophyly and reproduced the bat species tree. These results suggest that only a subset of hearing genes could underlie the evolution of echolocation. The present work continues to delineate the genetic bases of echolocation and ultrasonic hearing in bats.

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