In search of the vertebrate phylotypic stage: a molecular examination of the developmental hourglass model and von Baer's third law.
In 1828, Karl von Baer proposed a set of four evolutionary "laws" pertaining to embryological development. According to von Baer's third law, young embryos from different species are relatively undifferentiated and resemble one another but as development proceeds, distinguishing features of the species begin to appear and embryos of different species progressively diverge from one another. An expansion of this law, called "the hourglass model," has been proposed independently by Denis Duboule and Rudolf Raff in the 1990s. According to the hourglass model, ontogeny is characterized by a starting point at which different taxa differ markedly from one another, followed by a stage of reduced intertaxonomic variability (the phylotypic stage), and ending in a von-Baer-like progressive divergence among the taxa. A possible "translation" of the hourglass model into molecular terminology would suggest that orthologs expressed in stages described by the tapered part of the hourglass should resemble one another more than orthologs expressed in the expansive parts that precede or succeed the phylotypic stage. We tested this hypothesis using 1,585 mouse genes expressed during 26 embryonic stages, and their human orthologs. Evolutionary divergence was estimated at different embryonic stages by calculating pairwise distances between corresponding orthologous proteins from mouse and human. Two independent datasets were used. One dataset contained genes that are expressed solely in a single developmental stage; the second was made of genes expressed at different developmental stages. In the second dataset the genes were classified according to their earliest stage of expression. We fitted second order polynomials to the two datasets. The two polynomials displayed minima as expected from the hourglass model. The molecular results suggest, albeit weakly, that a phylotypic stage (or period) indeed exists. Its temporal location, sometimes between the first-somites stage and the formation of the posterior neuropore, was in approximate agreement with the morphologically defined phylotypic stage. The molecular evidence for the later parts of the hourglass model, i.e., for von Baer's third law, was stronger than that for the earlier parts. Copyright 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.