The fossil record contains numerous examples of dramatic evolutionary change in animals through time. Exactly how genetic alterations brought about these macroevolutionary changes, however, has proved difficult to ascertain. Now new research into the developmental biology of brine shrimp and fruit flies could throw light on the matter. According to a report published online today by the journal Nature, mutations in genes that guide embryonic development allowed insects to develop a radically different body plan from that of their crustacean-like ancestors some 400 million years ago.

The University of California, San Diego, team that conducted the research focused on so-called Hox genes, master switches that turn other genes on and off during the embryonic development of all animals, including humans. One of these Hox genes, known as Ubx, suppresses 100 percent of limb development in the thorax region of fruit flies, but only 15 percent in the brine shrimp Artemia (right). Modifications of Ubx, the investigators determined, would have allowed the many-limbed, crustacean-like ancient relatives of Artemia to lose their rear limbs, giving rise to the six-legged insects. "Before the evolution of insects, the Ubx protein didn't turn off genes required for leg formation," team member William McGinnis explains. "During the early evolution of insects, this gene and the protein it encoded changed so that they now turned off those genes required to make legs, essentially removing those legs from what would be the abdomen in insects."

In addition to shedding light on how major shifts in body design evolved, the new finding could help scientists better understand certain human diseases and deformities. "If you compare [Ubx] to many other related genes, you can see that they share certain regions in their sequences, which suggests that their function might be regulated like this gene," remarks lead study author Matthew Ronshaugen. "This may establish how, not only this gene, but relatives of this gene in many, many different organisms actually work." A number of these genes are involved in cancer and developmental abnormalities, he says, and "they may explain how some of these conditions came to be."