One of the challenges for discussing evolution within evangelical Christian circles is that there is widespread confusion about how evolution actually works. In this (intermittent) series, I discuss aspects of evolution that are commonly misunderstood in the Christian community. In this post, we continue to explore how whale evolution is supported by converging lines of evidence from developmental biology and genetics.
In the previous post in this series, we explored how evolution can force science into making predictions that seem counter-intuitive. For cetacean (whale) evolution, we saw that the preliminary lines of evidence (the fact that whales are vertebrates, and mammals, for instance) pointed to the prediction that modern whales are descended from four-limbed, land-dwelling ancestors. As we then noted:
Instantly this prediction raises a host of uncomfortable questions: where did their hind limbs go? How did they acquire a blowhole on the top of their heads when other mammals have two nostrils on the front of their faces? How did they transition to giving birth in the water? What happened to the teeth of the baleen whales? What happened to the hair characteristic of mammals? and so on. In some ways, evolutionary thinking about whales creates more difficulties than it appears to solve.
And yet, these difficulties are the stuff of science. If indeed our “educated guess” of terrestrial, tetrapod ancestry for whales is correct, the evidence will show that these transitions, challenging though they may seem, did indeed occur on the road to becoming “truly cetacean”.
We have already discussed hind limb and hair loss in whales, citing evidence from embryonic development in modern whales that shows how hair and hind limbs develop early in their embryogenesis, but then are lost at later stages. We now turn to one of the remaining questions: tooth loss in the lineage leading to modern toothless whales (order Mysticeti). To obtain their food these whales pass seawater through a baleen, a large sieve-like structure that filters out plankton, small fish and other food items. Some recent genetics sleuthing has investigated a portion of this riddle, and adds further details to the story of how the baleen whales came to be.
Evolution: A Theory with Bite
If indeed modern whales are descended from ancestral, four-limbed, terrestrial ancestors, then those ancestors, like mammals in general, had teeth. Modern toothed whales (order Odontoceti) have retained those teeth to the present day, but baleen whales have adopted a new way of life as filter-feeders. Researchers were curious to see if traces of a “toothed past” could be found in the genomes of modern baleen whales, so they went hunting for remnants of genes devoted to making teeth. Such defective gene remnants would be examples of pseudogenes, and we have discussed pseudogenes previously in this series. While pseudogenes in and of themselves are powerful evidence for evolution, pseudogenes that are “out of place” are especially so. One such example we have seen before is the human vitellogenin pseudogene, the remains of a gene used for yolk production in egg-laying organisms found in the exact location in the genome that evolution would predict for it. As mammals that receive embryonic nourishment through a placenta, we have no need of egg-yolk genes. Similarly, baleen whales have no need for genes responsible for making teeth, and finding the remnants of such genes would make a strong case for an evolutionary origin of baleen whales as the modified descendents of toothed whale ancestors.
Independent Lines of Evidence, but Contradictory Stories?
Some of the genes known to be used in all mammals for tooth formation were the obvious candidate genes to start with: the products of the ameloblastin, amelogenin, and enamelin genes are all used in the formation of tooth enamel, the hardest structure in the vertebrate skeleton. Researchers went looking for these genes in several Mysticete (i.e. toothless whale) species. The results showed that all the species studied did indeed have these three genes present as pseudogenes (and more specifically, as unitary pseudogenes, a special class of pseudogene we have discussed in detail previously). Finding these genes as pseudogenes in toothless whales was exactly what evolution predicted, but there was a catch: none of the mutations that removed the functions of these three genes were shared between different species, suggesting that these genes lost their function independently in the species studied. This finding was at odds with data from the fossil record, which suggested that teeth were lost only once, and early in the lineage leading to all modern toothless whales. So, the researchers seemed to have two lines of evidence that at face value contradicted each other. The fossil record suggested that tooth loss occurred once in the common ancestor of all toothless whales, but these three genes seemed to have been inactivated independently, several times over, suggesting that loss of teeth should be happening later in Mysticete evolution, and more than once.
One proposed explanation for the apparent discrepancy (among several put forward) was to predict that a fourth gene required for enamel formation was lost early in Mysticete evolution. The loss of any one gene necessary for forming enamel would be enough to prevent the process altogether. In this case, the loss of this fourth gene would prevent tooth enamel from forming, even though the genetic sequences of the other three enamel genes would still be intact. Once enamel function was lost, random mutations in the remaining enamel genes could then accumulate later in Mysticete evolution after speciation in this group was already underway. To test this hypothesis, the research group went hunting for other enamel genes in toothless whales.
Signature in the SINE
The smoking gun for tooth loss in Mysticetes turned out to be exactly what was predicted: a fourth gene, necessary for enamel production, and mutated with the same inactivating mutation in all modern toothless whales. The gene in question, named enamelysin, was destroyed when a mobile genetic element called a SINE transposon inserted into it, breaking it into two halves and removing its function:
The fact that the same SINE insertion mutation at an identical location is found in all modern Mysticete species indicates that this mutation happened once in a common ancestor and then was inherited by the entire group. Since this must have occurred early in the evolution of toothless whales in order to happen in the common ancestor of the entire group, the picture from the genetics and the fossil record match. Once again, findings in one discipline (in this case, paleontology) can be used to make very detailed predictions about what another, unrelated discipline (comparative genomics) should reveal. These results are also entirely consistent with the observation, made in the 1920s, that toothless whales form tooth buds during embryogenesis that are later reabsorbed prior to the point when the deposition of enamel would begin. As with the hind limb story in whale evolution, lines of evidence from genetics, paleontology and embryology converge to support the hypothesis that modern toothless whales descend, through modification, from toothed ancestors.
In the next post in this series, we’ll examine a few more lines of evidence for whale evolution, and extend our discussion to converging lines of evidence for the evolution of our own species.