The ratites are a distinctive clade of flightless birds, typified by the emu and ostrich that have acquired a range of unique anatomical characteristics since diverging from basal Aves at least 100 million years ago. The emu possesses a vestigial wing with a single digit and greatly reduced forelimb musculature. However, the embryological basis of wing reduction and other anatomical changes associated with loss of flight are unclear. Here we report a previously unknown co-option of the cardiac transcription factor Nkx2.5 to the forelimb in the emu embryo, but not in ostrich, or chicken and zebra finch, which have fully developed wings. Nkx2.5 is expressed in emu limb bud mesenchyme and maturing wing muscle, and mis-expression of Nkx2.5 throughout the limb bud in chick results in wing reductions. We propose that Nkx2.5 functions to inhibit early limb bud expansion and later muscle growth during development of the vestigial emu wing.
- evolutionary developmental biology
- limb development