Time lapse: A glimpse into prehistoric genomics

Griffin, D K and Larkin, D M and O'Connor, R E (2019) Time lapse: A glimpse into prehistoric genomics. European Journal of Medical Genetics.

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Abstract

For the purpose of this review, ‘time-lapse’ refers to the reconstruction of ancestral (in this case dinosaur) karyotypes using genome assemblies of extant species. Such reconstructions are only usually possible when genomes are assembled to ‘chromosome level’ i.e. a a complete representation of all the sequences, correctly ordered contiguously on each of the chromosomes. Recent paleontological evidence is very clear that birds are living dinosaurs, the latest example of dinosaurs emerging from a catastrophic extinction event. Non-avian dinosaurs (ever present in the public imagination through art, and broadcast media) emerged some 240 million years ago and have displayed incredible phenotypic diversity. Here we report on our recent studies to infer the overall karyotype of the Theropod dinosaur lineage from extant avian chromosome level genome assemblies. Our work first focused on determining the likely karyotype of the avian ancestor (most likely a chicken-sized, two-legged, feathered, land dinosaur from the Jurassic period) finding karyotypic similarity to the chicken. We then took the work further to determine the likely karyotype of the bird-lizard ancestor and the chromosomal changes (chiefly translocations and inversions) that occurred between then and modern birds. A combination of bioinformatics and cross-species fluorescence in situ hybridization (zoo-FISH) uncovered a considerable number of translocations and fissions from a ‘lizard-like’ genome structure of 2n = 36–46 to one similar to that of soft-shelled turtles (2n = 66) from 275 to 255 million years ago (mya). Remarkable karyotypic similarities between some soft-shelled turtles and chicken suggests that there were few translocations from the bird-turtle ancestor (plus ∼7 fissions) through the dawn of the dinosaurs and pterosaurs, through the theropod linage and on to most to modern birds. In other words, an avian-like karyotype was in place about 240mya when the dinosaurs and pterosaurs first emerged. We mapped 49 chromosome inversions from then to the present day, uncovering some gene ontology enrichment in evolutionary breakpoint regions. This avian-like karyotype with its many (micro)chromosomes provides the basis for variation (the driver of natural selection) through increased random segregation and recombination. It may therefore contribute to the ability of dinosaurs to survive multiple extinction events, emerging each time as speciose and diverse.