Walking Fish Suggests Locomotion Control Evolved Much Earlier than Thought

Summary: New research reports the first ambulatory creatures may have remained under water. Researchers report modern descendants of these creatures exhibit walking behaviors on the ocean floor.

Source: Cell Press.

Cartoons that illustrate evolution depict early vertebrates generating primordial limbs as they move onto land for the first time. But new findings indicate that some of these first ambulatory creatures may have stayed under water, spawning descendants that today exhibit walking behavior on the ocean floor. The results appear February 8 in the journal Cell.

“It has generally been thought that the ability to walk is something that evolved as vertebrates transitioned from sea to land,” says senior author Jeremy Dasen (@JeremyDasen), a developmental neurobiologist in the Department of Neuroscience and Physiology at the New York University School of Medicine. “We were surprised to learn that certain species of fish also can walk. In addition, they use a neural and genetic developmental program that is almost identical to the one used by higher vertebrates, including humans.”

The researchers focused on the neural development of a type of fish called the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea). Related to sharks and rays, these cartilaginous fish are considered to be among the most primitive vertebrates, having changed little from their ancestors that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.

Little skates have two sets of fins: large pectoral fins, which they use for swimming, and smaller pelvic fins, which they use for walking along the ocean floor. Previous research had shown that these fish use alternating, left-right motions when they walk, similar to the motions used by animals that walk on land, making them a valuable model to study.

The investigators used a technology called RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) to assess the repertoire of genes that are expressed in the skate’s motor neurons. They found that many of these genes are conserved between skates and mammals. In addition, they discovered that the neuronal subtypes that are essential for controlling the muscles that regulate the bending and straightening of limbs are present in the motor neurons of the skate. “These findings suggest [that] the genetic program that determines the ability of the nerves in the spinal cord to articulate muscles actually originated millions of years earlier than we have assumed they appeared,” Dasen says. “This fin-based movement and walking movements use the same developmental program.”

evolution cartoon
Image depicts how by studying neural circuits in skates, a fish species whose common ancestor with tetrapods existed ~420 million years ago, Dasen and colleagues provide insights into the ancient origins of walking. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Dasen et al./Cell.

The discovery went beyond the nerves that control muscles. The researchers also looked at a higher level of circuitry–the interneurons, which connect to motor neurons and tell them to activate the muscles. Interneurons assemble into circuits called central pattern generators (CPGs). CPGs determine the sequence in which different muscles are activated, thereby controlling locomotion. “We found that the interneurons, nearly a dozen types, are also highly conserved between skates and land mammals,” Dasen says.

Dasen’s team plans to use the little skates to study how motor neurons connect with other types of neurons and how they are regulated. “It’s hard to study the circuitry that controls walking in higher organisms like mice and chicks because there are so many more muscles and types of neurons that facilitate that behavior,” he says. “We think this species will serve as a useful model system to continue to work out the nerves that control walking and how they develop.”

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: This research was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute the Biomedical Research Council of A*STAR, a Cancer Center Support Grant, Australian Research Council Discovery grants, and the Human Frontiers Science Program.

Source: Joseph Caputo – Cell Press
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Dasen et al./Cell.
Original Research: Open access research in Cell.

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Cell Press “Walking Fish Suggests Locomotion Control Evolved Much Earlier than Thought.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 8 February 2018.
<https://neurosciencenews.com/locomotion-walking-fish-evolution-8459/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Cell Press (2018, February 8). Walking Fish Suggests Locomotion Control Evolved Much Earlier than Thought. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved February 8, 2018 from https://neurosciencenews.com/locomotion-walking-fish-evolution-8459/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Cell Press “Walking Fish Suggests Locomotion Control Evolved Much Earlier than Thought.” https://neurosciencenews.com/locomotion-walking-fish-evolution-8459/ (accessed February 8, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


The Ancient Origins of Neural Substrates for Land Walking

•The little skate Leucoraja erinacea exhibits bipedal walking-like behaviors
•Neuronal subtypes essential for walking originated in primitive jawed fish
•Fin and limb motor neurons share a common Hox-dependent gene network
•Modulation of Hox patterning facilitates evolutionary changes in MN organization

Walking is the predominant locomotor behavior expressed by land-dwelling vertebrates, but it is unknown when the neural circuits that are essential for limb control first appeared. Certain fish species display walking-like behaviors, raising the possibility that the underlying circuitry originated in primitive marine vertebrates. We show that the neural substrates of bipedalism are present in the little skate Leucoraja erinacea, whose common ancestor with tetrapods existed ∼420 million years ago. Leucoraja exhibits core features of tetrapod locomotor gaits, including left-right alternation and reciprocal extension-flexion of the pelvic fins. Leucoraja also deploys a remarkably conserved Hox transcription factor-dependent program that is essential for selective innervation of fin/limb muscle. This network encodes peripheral connectivity modules that are distinct from those used in axial muscle-based swimming and has apparently been diminished in most modern fish. These findings indicate that the circuits that are essential for walking evolved through adaptation of a genetic regulatory network shared by all vertebrates with paired appendages.

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