Biology letters

Recurrent functional divergence of early tetrapod keratins in amphibian toe pads and mammalian hair.

PMID 23485876


Amphibians have invaded arboreal habitats multiple times independently during their evolution. Adaptation to these habitats was nearly always accompanied by the presence or appearance of toe pads, flattened enlargements on tips of fingers and toes that provide adhesive power in these environments. The strength and elasticity of the toe pad relies on polygonal arrayed cells ending in nanoscale projections, which are densely packed with cytoskeletal proteins. Here, we characterized and determined the evolutionary origin of these proteins in the toe pad of the tree frog Hyla cinerea. We created a subtracted cDNA library enriching genes that are expressed in the toe pad, but nowhere else in the toe. Our analyses revealed five alpha keratins as main structural proteins of the amphibian toe pad. Phylogenetic analyses show that these proteins belong to different keratin lineages that originated in an early tetrapod ancestor and in mammals evolved to become the major keratin types of hair. The ancestral keratins were probably already expressed in areas that required skin reinforcement in early tetrapods, and subsequently diverged to support fundamentally different adaptive structures in amphibians and mammals.

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Keratin from human epidermis, aqueous solution