The vertebrate limb demonstrates remarkable similarity in basic organization across phylogenetically disparate groups. To gain further insight into how this morphological similarity is maintained in different developmental contexts, we explored the molecular anatomy of size-reduced embryos of the Puerto Rican coqui frog, Eleutherodactylus coqui. This animal demonstrates direct development, a life-history strategy marked by rapid progression from egg to adult and absence of a free-living, aquatic larva. Nonetheless, coqui exhibits a basal anuran limb structure, with four toes on the forelimb and five toes on the hind limb. We investigated the extent to which coqui limb bud development conforms to the model of limb development derived from amniote studies. Toward this end, we characterized dynamic patterns of expression for 13 critical patterning genes across three principle stages of limb development. As expected, most genes demonstrate expression patterns that are essentially unchanged compared to amniote species. For example, we identified an EcFgf8-expression domain within the apical ectodermal ridge (AER). This expression pattern defines a putatively functional AER signaling domain, despite the absence of a morphological ridge in coqui embryos. However, two genes, EcMeis2 and EcAlx4, demonstrate altered domains of expression, which imply a potential shift in gene function between coqui frogs and amniote model systems. Unexpectedly, several genes thought to be critical for limb patterning in other systems, including EcFgf4, EcWnt3a, EcWnt7a, and EcGremlin, demonstrated no evident expression pattern in the limb at the three stages we analyzed. The absence of EcFgf4 and EcWnt3a expression during limb patterning is perhaps not surprising, given that neither gene is critical for proper limb development in the mouse, based on knockout and expression analyses. In contrast, absence of EcWnt7a and EcGremlin is surprising, given that expression of these molecules appears to be absolutely essential in all other model systems so far examined. Although this analysis substantiates the existence of a core set of ancient limb-patterning molecules, which likely mediate identical functions across highly diverse vertebrate forms, it also reveals remarkable evolutionary flexibility in the genetic control of a conserved morphological pattern across evolutionary time.
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