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Convergent regulatory evolution and the origin of flightlessness in palaeognathous birds

By Timothy Sackton, Phil Grayson, Alison Cloutier, Zhirui Hu, Jun S. Liu, Nicole E. Wheeler, Paul P. Gardner, Julia A. Clarke, Allan J. Baker, Michele Clamp, Scott V. Edwards

Posted 08 Feb 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/262584

The relative roles of regulatory and protein evolution in the origin and loss of convergent phenotypic traits is a core question in evolutionary biology. Here we combine phylogenomic, epigenomic and developmental data to show that convergent evolution of regulatory regions, but not protein-coding genes, is associated with flightlessness in palaeognathous birds, a classic example of a convergent phenotype. Eleven new genomes, including a draft genome from an extinct moa, resolve palaeognath phylogeny and show that the incidence of independent, convergent accelerations among 284,000 conserved non-exonic elements is significantly more frequent in ratites than other bird lineages. Ratite-specific acceleration of conserved regions and measures of open chromatin across eight tissues in the developing chick identify candidate regulatory regions that may have modified or lost function in ratites. Enhancer activity assays conducted in the early developing chicken forelimb confirm that volant versions of a conserved element in the first intron of the TEAD1 gene display conserved enhancer activity, whereas an accelerated flightless version fails to drive reporter gene expression. Our results show that convergent molecular changes associated with loss of flight are largely regulatory in nature.

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