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Research solves a 160-year-old mystery about the origin of skeletons

University of Manchester

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IMAGE: A fossil heterostracan, Errivaspis waynensis, from the early Devonian (approximately 419 million years ago) of Herefordshire, UK. view more 

Credit: Image from Keating et al. 2018

Scientists at The University of Manchester and the University of Bristol have used powerful X-rays to peer inside the skeletons of some of our oldest vertebrate relatives, solving a 160-year-old mystery about the origin of our skeletons.

Living vertebrates have skeletons built from four different tissue types: bone and cartilage (the main tissues that human skeletons are made from), and dentine and enamel (the tissues from which our teeth are constructed). These tissues are unique because they become mineralised as they develop, giving the skeleton strength and rigidity.

Evidence for the early evolution of our skeletons can be found in a group of fossil fishes called heterostracans, which lived over 400 million years ago. These fishes include some of the oldest vertebrates with a mineralised skeleton that have ever been discovered. Exactly what tissue heterostracan skeletons were made from has long puzzled scientists.

Now a team of researchers from the University of Manchester, the University of Bristol and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland have taken a detailed look inside heterostracan skeletons using Synchrotron Tomography: a special type of CT scanning using very high energy X-rays produced by a particle accelerator. Using this technique, the team have identified this mystery tissue.

Lead researcher Dr Joseph Keating, from Manchester's School of Earth of Environmental Scientists, explained: "Heterostracan skeletons are made of a really strange tissue called 'aspidin'. It is crisscrossed by tiny tubes and does not closely resemble any of the tissues found in vertebrates today. For a 160 years, scientists have wondered if aspidin is a transitional stage in the evolution of mineralised tissues."

The results of this study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, show that the tiny tubes are voids that originally housed fibre-bundles of collagen, a type of protein found in your skin and bones.

These findings enabled Dr Keating to rule out all but one hypothesis for the tissue's identity: aspidin is the earliest evidence of bone in the fossil record.

Co-author, Professor Phil Donoghue from the University of Bristol concludes: "These findings change our view on the evolution of the skeleton. Aspidin was once thought to be the precursor of vertebrate mineralised tissues. We show that it is, in fact, a type of bone, and that all these tissues must have evolved millions of years earlier."

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Notes to Editor

For media enquiries please contact Jordan Kenny on 0161 275 8257 or jordan.kenny@manchester.ac.uk

Reference: Paper "The nature of aspidin and the evolutionary origin of bone" was published in Nature Ecology and Evolution Keating JN, Marquart CL, Marone F, Donoghue PCJ. 2018. Nature Ecology & Evolution In press.

Image titles and credits

Life restoration of Anglaspis heintzi - The earliest vertebrates with a mineralised skeleton were armoured jawless fishes such as Anglaspis heintzi, a heterostracan that lived approximately 419 million years ago. Please note - this image is from Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Anglaspis#/media/File:Anglaspis_heintzi_life_restoration.jpg)

PR Fig 2 - A fossil heterostracan, Errivaspis waynensis, from the early Devonian (approximately 419 million years ago) of Herefordshire, UK. Image from Keating et al. 2018

PR Fig 3 - An international team of scientists from the Univeristy of Manchester, Univeristy of Bristol and Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland have studied the skeletons of heterostracans using high energy x-rays. This technique allowed the researchers to create detailed models of the skeletal tissue. Image from Keating et al. 2018

PR Fig 4 - By examining the microscopic structure of these skeletons, they were able to identify the mysterious tissue 'aspidin' and provide new insight into the evolution of our skeleton. Image from Keating et al. 2018

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