Friday, June 21, 2013

(Insert mildly provocative title here)

Ever seen a pair of pigeons going at it?  And did you notice a penis on the male pigeon?  The answer is no, because most birds do not have external genitalia large enough for penetration.  And yet birds reproduce via internal fertilization.  Why would evolution favor male genitalia too small to actually enter into the female?  This just seems so inefficient. 

There are a few birds that do have well developed phalluses, such as the duck and goose.  What happened during evolution that caused some birds to retain a phallus, whereas most other birds lost it?  A paper appeared this week in Current Biology by Herrera et al., which addresses these questions from a developmental point of view.

Developmental arrest
The authors started this study by comparing the development of the phallus in embryos of two different birds.  They chose to look at (1) chick embryos, which are part of the galliformes group of birds and have reduced phalluses and (2) duck embryos, which are part of the anseriforms group, which have well developed, penetrating penises.  They followed the growth of the genital tubercle, the tissue that will form the penis.  As the duck and chick embryos grow, so do their genital tubercles, with no noticeable difference between the two species during the early stages of development.  At a later time period, though, the tubercle stops growing and regresses in the chicks, while the duck keeps on growing.  This shows that the tissue that makes the two different types of phalluses has the same developmental origin.

Why does the genital tubercle stop growing in the chick?
From a molecular stand point, the chick embryos could either lose the “growth” signal or they could gain expression of a “stop” signal not present in ducks.  From work in other animals, the authors knew that there are two major growth signals responsible for guiding the development of the external genitalia – Sonic Hedgehog (Shh) [see my other post about this protein] and Hox13.  These two genes are strongly expressed in the duck genital tubercle throughout embryonic development, as expected.  Surprisingly, though, they are also strongly expressed in the chick embryos.  This means that the chickens haven’t lost the growth signal.

The authors then investigated if there is some sort of a “stop” signal in the chicks.  They found that in chicks and quails, with reduced phalluses, there is a lot of cell death in the genital tubercle in the later stages of development.  This could account for the regression of the genital tubercle.  They then found that the chicks highly express a protein called BMP4 at the tip of the tubercle, which induces cell death, whereas ducks do not. 

In fact, by overexpressing BMPs in the duck, they induced cell death in the genital tubercle.  In the opposite experiment, they inhibited BMPs in the chick and their genital tubercles increased growth, as if they were ducks.

In summary:

            Chicken: + BMP --> increased cell death --> reduced phallus
            Duck:       - BMP --> no cell death, so continued tissue development --> large phallus

Evolution of reduced phallus
So what does this mean?  Chicks and quails have reduced phalluses, because during development, they express BMP4, which tells the developing cells of the penis to die off.  One really cool thing that the authors did next was to look at cell death in the closest relative to birds-- the alligator.  Yah, they got alligator embryos for this research!  Alligators have developed phalluses and they show hardly any cell death in the genital tubercle.  From this work, they could create an evolutionary tree, which shows that chicks and quails most likely evolved the BMP4 signal after their group separated from ducks.  Although the authors didn’t test any members (ha ha) from the neoaves group, which includes most other birds, we can presume that they also have a similar cell death mechanism to reduce the development of their phalluses.

Phylogenetic tree of birds, showing when the BMP signal evolved. (Adapted from Herrera et al., 2013)

This still begs the question of why would natural selection favor a reduced phallus so much so that it evolved independently in different lineages?  The authors propose two different theories, both of which may have occurred:

1) Sexual selection – sure, it may not be favorable for the males to have reduced phalluses, but it might be advantageous for the females.  In order for insemination to occur in these species, the female has to be a willing participant to allow the male to shimmy up next to her and release the sperm in very close proximity.  This gives the females the power to select their mates.  As opposed to species with large penises, where the male could basically rape the female and still successfully pass on his genes to the next generation.

2) Pleiotropy – this term refers to when a single gene mutation can lead to multiple noticeable changes in the body.  BMPs are a major signal during development of animals.  BMPs are involved in a number of bird-only innovations such as feathers and beaks.  Maybe increased BMP expression gave an advantage to these birds, but also lead to reduced phalluses, as a secondary effect.  This may have occurred first in evolution, but sexual selection may have stabilized this characteristic in the population.

This article was so clear and interesting.  I’m sure it will catch people’s attention because of the subject matter, but it’s a great example of using development to solve an evolutionary question.  Plus it gives reviewers and bloggers a great opportunity to think up clever titles and puns for their articles.  The review that was published alongside this article was titled “Cock-a-doodle-don’t”. How can I compete with that?