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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2001 October 29; 356(1414): 1633–1653.
PMCID: PMC1088541

The genetic basis of modularity in the development and evolution of the vertebrate dentition.


The construction of organisms from units that develop under semi-autonomous genetic control (modules) has been proposed to be an important component of their ability to undergo adaptive phenotypic evolution. The organization of the vertebrate dentition as a system of repeated parts provides an opportunity to study the extent to which phenotypic modules, identified by their evolutionary independence from other such units, are related to modularity in the genetic control of development. The evolutionary history of vertebrates provides numerous examples of both correlated and independent evolution of groups of teeth. The dentition itself appears to be a module of the dermal exoskeleton, from which it has long been under independent genetic control. Region-specific tooth loss has been a common trend in vertebrate evolution. Novel deployment of teeth and reacquisition of lost teeth have also occurred, although less frequently. Tooth shape differences within the dentition may be discontinuous (referred to as heterodonty) or graded. The occurrence of homeotic changes in tooth shape provides evidence for the decoupling of tooth shape and location in the course of evolution. Potential mechanisms for region-specific evolutionary tooth loss are suggested by a number of mouse gene knockouts and human genetic dental anomalies, as well as a comparison between fully-developed and rudimentary teeth in the dentition of rodents. These mechanisms include loss of a tooth-type-specific initiation signal, alterations of the relative strength of inductive and inhibitory signals acting at the time of tooth initiation and the overall reduction in levels of proteins required for the development of all teeth. Ectopic expression of tooth initiation signals provides a potential mechanism for the novel deployment or reacquisition of teeth; a single instance is known of a gene whose ectopic expression in transgenic mice can lead to ectopic teeth. Differences in shape between incisor and molar teeth in the mouse have been proposed to be controlled by the region-specific expression of signalling molecules in the oral epithelium. These molecules induce the expression of transcription factors in the underlying jaw mesenchyme that may act as selectors of tooth type. It is speculated that shifts in the expression domains of the epithelial signalling molecules might be responsible for homeotic changes in tooth shape. The observation that these molecules are regionally restricted in the chicken, whose ancestors were not heterodont, suggests that mammalian heterodonty may have evolved through the use of patterning mechanisms already acting on skeletal elements of the jaws. In general, genetic and morphological approaches identify similar types of modules in the dentition, but the data are not yet sufficient to identify exact correspondences. It is speculated that modularity may be achieved by gene expression differences between teeth or by differences in the time of their development, causing mutations to have cumulative effects on later-developing teeth. The mammalian dentition, for which virtually all of the available developmental genetic data have been collected, represents a small subset of the dental diversity present in vertebrates as a whole. In particular, teleost fishes may have a much more extensive dentition. Extension of research on the genetic control of tooth development to this and other vertebrate groups has great potential to further the understanding of modularity in the dentition.

Articles from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences are provided here courtesy of The Royal Society