Evo-devo of the human vertebral column : on homeotic transformations, pathologies and prenatal selectionEvo-devo of the human vertebral column : on homeotic transformations, pathologies and prenatal selection
Faculty of Sciences. Biology
Evolutionary ecology group (EVECO)
39(2012):4, p. 456-471
University of Antwerp
Homeotic transformations of vertebrae are particularly common in humans and tend to come associated with malformations in a wide variety of organ systems. In a dataset of 1,389 deceased human foetuses and infants a majority had cervical ribs and approximately half of these individuals also had missing twelfth ribs or lumbar ribs. In ~10 % of all cases there was an additional shift of the lumbo-sacral boundary and, hence, homeotic transformations resulted in shifts of at least three vertebral boundaries. We found a strong coupling between the abnormality of the vertebral patterns and the amount and strength of associated malformations, i.e., the longer the disturbance of the vertebral patterning has lasted, the more associated malformations have developed and the more organ systems are affected. The germ layer of origin of the malformations was not significantly associated with the frequency of vertebral patterns. In contrast, we find significant associations with the different developmental mechanisms that are involved in the causation of the malformations, that is, segmentation, neural crest development, left-right patterning, etc. Our results, thus, suggest that locally perceived developmental signals are more important for the developmental outcome than the origin of the cells. The low robustness of vertebral A-P patterning apparent from the large number of homeotic transformations is probably caused by the strong interactivity of developmental processes and the low redundancy of involved morphogens during early organogenesis. Additionally, the early irreversibility of the specification of the A-P identity of vertebrae probably adds to the vulnerability of the process by limiting the possibility for recovery from developmental disturbances. The low developmental robustness of vertebral A-P patterning contrasts with a high robustness of the A-P patterning of the vertebral regions. Not only the order is invariable, also the variation in the number of vertebrae per region is small. This robustness is in agreement with the evolutionary stability of vertebral regions in tetrapods. Finally, we propose a new hypothesis regarding the constancy of the presacral number of vertebrae in mammals.