First, you start with a lizard.
Really, I’m not joking. Snakes didn’t just appear out of nowhere, nor was there simply some massive cosmic zot of a mutation in some primordial legged ancestor that turned their progeny into slithery limbless serpents. One of the tougher lessons to get across to people is that evolution is not about abrupt transmutations of one form into another, but the gradual accumulation of many changes at the genetic level which are typically buffered and have minimal effects on the phenotype, only rarely expanding into a lineage with a marked difference in morphology.
What this means in a practical sense is that if you take a distinct form of a modern clade, such as the snakes, and you look at a distinctly different form in a related clade, such as the lizards, what you may find is that the differences are resting atop a common suite of genetic changes; that snakes, for instance, are extremes in a range of genetic possibilities that are defined by novel attributes shared by all squamates (squamates being the lizards and snakes together). Lizards are not snakes, but they will have inherited some of the shared genetic differences that enabled snakes to arise from the squamate last common ancestor.
So if you want to know where snakes came from, the right place to start is to look at their nearest cousins, the lizards, and ask what snakes and lizards have in common, that is at the same time different from more distant relatives, like mice, turtles, and people…and then you’ll have an idea of the shared genetic substrate that can make a snake out of a lizard-like early squamate.
Furthermore, one obvious place to look is at the pattern of the Hox genes. Hox genes are primary regulators of the body plan along the length of the animal; they are expressed in overlapping zones that specify morphological regions of the body, such as cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral/pelvic, and caudal mesodermal tissues, where, for instance, a thoracic vertebra would have one kind of shape with associated ribs, while lumbar vertebra would have a different shape and no ribs. These identities are set up by which Hox genes are active in the tissue forming the bone. And that’s what makes the Hox genes interesting in this case: where the lizard body plan has a little ribless interruption to form pelvis and hindlimbs, the snake has vertebra and ribs that just keep going and going. There must have been some change in the Hox genes (or their downstream targets) to turn a lizard into a snake.
There are four overlapping sets of Hox genes in tetrapods, named a, b, c, and d. Each set has up to 13 individual genes, where 1 is switched on at the front of the animal and 13 is active way back in the tail. This particular study looked at just the caudal members, 10-13, since those are the genes whose expression patterns straddle the pelvis and so are likely candidates for changes in the evolution of snakes.
Here’s a summary diagram of the morphology and patterns of Hox gene expression in the lizard (left) and snake (right). Let’s see what we can determine about the differences.
The morphology is revealing: snakes and lizards have the same regions, cervical (yellow), thoracic (blue), sacral (or cloacal in the snake, which lacks pelvic structures in most species) in green, and caudal or tail segments (red). The differences are in quantity — snakes make a lot of ribbed thoracic segments — and detail — snakes don’t make a pelvis, usually, but do have specializations in that corresponding area for excretion and reproduction.
Where it really gets interesting is in the expression patterns of the Hox genes, shown with the bars that illustrate the regions where each Hox gene listed is expressed. They are largely similar in snake and lizard, with boundaries of Hox expression that correspond to transitions in the morphology of vertebrae. But there are revealing exceptions.
Compare a10/c10 in the snake and lizard. In the snake, these two genes have broader expression patterns, reaching up into the thoracic region; in the lizard, they are cut off sharply at the sacral boundary. This is interesting because in other vertebrates, the Hox 10 group is known to have the function of suppressing rib formation. Yet there they are, turned on in the posterior portion of the thorax in the snake, where there are ribs all over the place.
In the snake, then, Hox a10 and c10 have lost a portion of their function — they no longer shut down ribs. What is the purpose of the extended domain of a10/c10 expression? It may not have one. A comparison of the sequences of these genes between various species reveals a detectable absence of signs of selection — the reason these genes happen to be active so far anteriorly is because selection has been relaxed, probably because they’ve lost that morphological effect of shutting down ribs. Those big bars are a consequence of simple sloppiness in a system that can afford a little slack.
The next group of Hox genes, the 11 group, are very similar in their expression patterns in the lizard and the snake, and that reflects their specific roles. The 10 group is largely involved in repression of rib formation, but the 11 group is involved in the development of sacrum-specific structures. In birds, for instance, the Hox 11 genes are known to be involved in the development of the cloaca, a structure shared between birds, snakes, and lizards, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that they aren’t subject to quite as much change.
The 13 group has some notable differences: Hox a13 and d13 are mostly shut off in the snake. This is suggestive. The 13 group of Hox genes are the last genes, at the very end of the animal, and one of their proposed functions is to act as a terminator of patterning — turning on the Hox 13 genes starts the process of shutting down the mesoderm, shrinking the pool of tissue available for making body parts, so removing a repressor of mesoderm may promote longer periods of growth, allowing the snake to extend its length further during embryonic development.
So we see a couple of clear correlates at the molecular level for differences in snake and lizard morphology: rib suppression has been lost in the snake Hox 10 group, and the activity of the snake Hox 13 group has been greatly curtailed, which may be part of the process of enabling greater elongation. What are the similarities between snakes and lizards that are also different from other animals?
This was an interesting surprise. There are some differences in Hox gene organization in the squamates as a whole, shared with both snakes and lizards.
That’s a diagram of the structure of the chromosome in the neighborhood of the Hox d10-13 genes in various vertebrates. For instance, look at the human and the turtle: the layout of our Hox d genes is vary similar, with 13-12-11-10 laid out with approximately the same distances between them, and furthermore, there are conserved non-coding elements, most likely important pieces of regulatory DNA, that are illustrated in light yellow-reen and dark green vertical bars, and they are the same, too.
In other words, the genes that stake out the locations of pelvic and tail structures in turtles and people are pretty much the same, using the same regulatory apparatus. It must be why they both have such pretty butts.
But now compare those same genes with the squamates, geckos, anoles, slow-worms, and corn snakes. The differences are huge: something happened in the ancestor of the squamates that released this region of the genome from some otherwise highly conserved constraints. We don’t know what, but in general regulation of the Hox genes is complex and tightly interknit, and this order of animals acquired some other as yet unidentified patterning mechanism that opened up this region of genome for wider experimentation.
When these regions are compared in animals like turtles and people and chickens, the genomes reveal signs of purifying selection — that is, mutations here tend to be unsuccessful, and lead to death, failure to propagate, etc., other horrible fates that mean tinkering here is largely unfavorable to fecundity (which makes sense: who wants a mutation expressed in their groinal bits?). In the squamates, the evidence in the genome does not witness to intense selection for their particular arrangement, but instead, of relaxed selection — they are generally more tolerant of variations in the Hox gene complex in this area. What was found in those enlarged intergenic regions is a greater invasion of degenerate DNA sequences: lots of additional retrotransposons, like LINES and SINES, which are all junk DNA.
So squamates have more junk in the genomic trunk, which is not necessarily expressed as an obvious phenotypic difference, but still means that they can more flexibly accommodate genetic variations in this particular area. Which means, in turn, that they have the potential to produce more radical experiments in morphology, like making a snake. The change in Hox gene regulation in the squamate ancestor did not immediately produce a limbless snake, instead it was an enabling mutation that opened the door to novel variations that did not compromise viability.
Di-Po N, Montoya-Burgos JI, Miller H, Pourquie O, Milinkovitch MC, Duboule D (2010) Changes in Hox genes’ structure and function during the evolution of the squamate body plan. Nature 464:99-103.