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1.  MicroRNAs support a turtle + lizard clade 
Biology Letters  2011;8(1):104-107.
Despite much interest in amniote systematics, the origin of turtles remains elusive. Traditional morphological phylogenetic analyses place turtles outside Diapsida—amniotes whose ancestor had two fenestrae in the temporal region of the skull (among the living forms the tuatara, lizards, birds and crocodilians)—and allied with some unfenestrate-skulled (anapsid) taxa. Nonetheless, some morphological analyses place turtles within Diapsida, allied with Lepidosauria (tuatara and lizards). Most molecular studies agree that turtles are diapsids, but rather than allying them with lepidosaurs, instead place turtles near or within Archosauria (crocodilians and birds). Thus, three basic phylogenetic positions for turtles with respect to extant Diapsida are currently debated: (i) sister to Diapsida, (ii) sister to Lepidosauria, or (iii) sister to, or within, Archosauria. Interestingly, although these three alternatives are consistent with a single unrooted four-taxon tree for extant reptiles, they differ with respect to the position of the root. Here, we apply a novel molecular dataset, the presence versus absence of specific microRNAs, to the problem of the phylogenetic position of turtles and the root of the reptilian tree, and find that this dataset unambiguously supports a turtle + lepidosaur group. We find that turtles and lizards share four unique miRNA gene families that are not found in any other organisms' genome or small RNA library, and no miRNAs are found in all diapsids but not turtles, or in turtles and archosaurs but not in lizards. The concordance between our result and some morphological analyses suggests that there have been numerous morphological convergences and reversals in reptile phylogeny, including the loss of temporal fenestrae.
PMCID: PMC3259949  PMID: 21775315
turtle; microRNA; amniote
2.  Using Genes as Characters and a Parsimony Analysis to Explore the Phylogenetic Position of Turtles 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(11):e79348.
The phylogenetic position of turtles within the vertebrate tree of life remains controversial. Conflicting conclusions from different studies are likely a consequence of systematic error in the tree construction process, rather than random error from small amounts of data. Using genomic data, we evaluate the phylogenetic position of turtles with both conventional concatenated data analysis and a “genes as characters” approach. Two datasets were constructed, one with seven species (human, opossum, zebra finch, chicken, green anole, Chinese pond turtle, and western clawed frog) and 4584 orthologous genes, and the second with four additional species (soft-shelled turtle, Nile crocodile, royal python, and tuatara) but only 1638 genes. Our concatenated data analysis strongly supported turtle as the sister-group to archosaurs (the archosaur hypothesis), similar to several recent genomic data based studies using similar methods. When using genes as characters and gene trees as character-state trees with equal weighting for each gene, however, our parsimony analysis suggested that turtles are possibly sister-group to diapsids, archosaurs, or lepidosaurs. None of these resolutions were strongly supported by bootstraps. Furthermore, our incongruence analysis clearly demonstrated that there is a large amount of inconsistency among genes and most of the conflict relates to the placement of turtles. We conclude that the uncertain placement of turtles is a reflection of the true state of nature. Concatenated data analysis of large and heterogeneous datasets likely suffers from systematic error and over-estimates of confidence as a consequence of a large number of characters. Using genes as characters offers an alternative for phylogenomic analysis. It has potential to reduce systematic error, such as data heterogeneity and long-branch attraction, and it can also avoid problems associated with computation time and model selection. Finally, treating genes as characters provides a convenient method for examining gene and genome evolution.
PMCID: PMC3836853  PMID: 24278129
3.  More than 1000 ultraconserved elements provide evidence that turtles are the sister group of archosaurs 
Biology Letters  2012;8(5):783-786.
We present the first genomic-scale analysis addressing the phylogenetic position of turtles, using over 1000 loci from representatives of all major reptile lineages including tuatara. Previously, studies of morphological traits positioned turtles either at the base of the reptile tree or with lizards, snakes and tuatara (lepidosaurs), whereas molecular analyses typically allied turtles with crocodiles and birds (archosaurs). A recent analysis of shared microRNA families found that turtles are more closely related to lepidosaurs. To test this hypothesis with data from many single-copy nuclear loci dispersed throughout the genome, we used sequence capture, high-throughput sequencing and published genomes to obtain sequences from 1145 ultraconserved elements (UCEs) and their variable flanking DNA. The resulting phylogeny provides overwhelming support for the hypothesis that turtles evolved from a common ancestor of birds and crocodilians, rejecting the hypothesized relationship between turtles and lepidosaurs.
PMCID: PMC3440978  PMID: 22593086
turtles; ultraconserved elements; phylogenomics; evolution; archosaurs
4.  Toward consilience in reptile phylogeny: microRNAs support an archosaur, not a lepidosaur affinity for turtles 
Evolution & development  2014;16(4):189-196.
Understanding the phylogenetic placement of crown turtles (Testudines) among amniotes has been a source of particular contention. Recent morphological analyses suggest that turtles are sister to all other reptiles, whereas virtually all analyses of gene sequences support turtles as being inside Diapsida, and usually as sister to crown Archosauria (birds and crocodylians). Previously, a study using microRNAs (miRNAs) placed turtles inside diapsids, but as sister to lepidosaurs (lizards and Sphenodon) rather than archosaurs. Here, we test this result with an expanded dataset, and employ proper criteria for miRNA annotation. Significantly, we find no support for a turtle + lepidosaur sister-relationship; intstead, we recover strong support for turtles sharing a more recent common ancestor with archosaurs as the living sister group to birds + crocodylians. These results are in accordance with most gene sequence studies, providing strong, consilient evidence from diverse independent datasets for the phylogenetic position of turtles.
PMCID: PMC4215941  PMID: 24798503
Testudines; Amniota; Archosauria; Reptilia; microRNA; Turtles
5.  Timing of organogenesis support basal position of turtles in the amniote tree of life 
The phylogenetic position of turtles is the most disputed aspect in the reconstruction of the land vertebrate tree of life. This controversy has arisen after many different kinds and revisions of investigations of molecular and morphological data. Three main hypotheses of living sister-groups of turtles have resulted from them: all reptiles, crocodiles + birds or squamates + tuatara. Although embryology has played a major role in morphological studies of vertebrate phylogeny, data on developmental timing have never been examined to explore and test the alternative phylogenetic hypotheses. We conducted a comprehensive study of published and new embryological data comprising 15 turtle and eight tetrapod species belonging to other taxa, integrating for the first time data on the side-necked turtle clade.
The timing of events in organogenesis of diverse character complexes in all body regions is not uniform across amniotes and can be analysed using a parsimony-based method. Changes in the relative timing of particular events diagnose many clades of amniotes and include a phylogenetic signal. A basal position of turtles to the living saurian clades is clearly supported by timing of organogenesis data.
The clear signal of a basal position of turtles provided by heterochronic data implies significant convergence in either molecular, adult morphological or developmental timing characters, as only one of the alternative solutions to the phylogenetic conundrum can be right. The development of a standard reference series of embryological events in amniotes as presented here should enable future improvements and expansion of sampling and thus the examination of other hypotheses about phylogeny and patterns of the evolution of land vertebrate development.
PMCID: PMC2679012  PMID: 19389226
6.  Reptilian Transcriptomes v2.0: An Extensive Resource for Sauropsida Genomics and Transcriptomics 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2015;7(6):1827-1841.
Despite the availability of deep-sequencing techniques, genomic and transcriptomic data remain unevenly distributed across phylogenetic groups. For example, reptiles are poorly represented in sequence databases, hindering functional evolutionary and developmental studies in these lineages substantially more diverse than mammals. In addition, different studies use different assembly and annotation protocols, inhibiting meaningful comparisons. Here, we present the “Reptilian Transcriptomes Database 2.0,” which provides extensive annotation of transcriptomes and genomes from species covering the major reptilian lineages. To this end, we sequenced normalized complementary DNA libraries of multiple adult tissues and various embryonic stages of the leopard gecko and the corn snake and gathered published reptilian sequence data sets from representatives of the four extant orders of reptiles: Squamata (snakes and lizards), the tuatara, crocodiles, and turtles. The LANE runner 2.0 software was implemented to annotate all assemblies within a single integrated pipeline. We show that this approach increases the annotation completeness of the assembled transcriptomes/genomes. We then built large concatenated protein alignments of single-copy genes and inferred phylogenetic trees that support the positions of turtles and the tuatara as sister groups of Archosauria and Squamata, respectively. The Reptilian Transcriptomes Database 2.0 resource will be updated to include selected new data sets as they become available, thus making it a reference for differential expression studies, comparative genomics and transcriptomics, linkage mapping, molecular ecology, and phylogenomic analyses involving reptiles. The database is available at and can be enquired using a wwwblast server installed at the University of Geneva.
PMCID: PMC4494049  PMID: 26133641
reptiles; transcriptomes; deep sequencing; deep sequencing; squamates; turtles; turtles; Archosauria
7.  Intra-genomic GC heterogeneity in sauropsids: evolutionary insights from cDNA mapping and GC3 profiling in snake 
BMC Genomics  2012;13:604.
Extant sauropsids (reptiles and birds) are divided into two major lineages, the lineage of Testudines (turtles) and Archosauria (crocodilians and birds) and the lineage of Lepidosauria (tuatara, lizards, worm lizards and snakes). Karyotypes of these sauropsidan groups generally consist of macrochromosomes and microchromosomes. In chicken, microchromosomes exhibit a higher GC-content than macrochromosomes. To examine the pattern of intra-genomic GC heterogeneity in lepidosaurian genomes, we constructed a cytogenetic map of the Japanese four-striped rat snake (Elaphe quadrivirgata) with 183 cDNA clones by fluorescence in situ hybridization, and examined the correlation between the GC-content of exonic third codon positions (GC3) of the genes and the size of chromosomes on which the genes were localized.
Although GC3 distribution of snake genes was relatively homogeneous compared with those of the other amniotes, microchromosomal genes showed significantly higher GC3 than macrochromosomal genes as in chicken. Our snake cytogenetic map also identified several conserved segments between the snake macrochromosomes and the chicken microchromosomes. Cross-species comparisons revealed that GC3 of most snake orthologs in such macrochromosomal segments were GC-poor (GC3 < 50%) whereas those of chicken orthologs in microchromosomes were relatively GC-rich (GC3 ≥ 50%).
Our results suggest that the chromosome size-dependent GC heterogeneity had already occurred before the lepidosaur-archosaur split, 275 million years ago. This character was probably present in the common ancestor of lepidosaurs and but lost in the lineage leading to Anolis during the diversification of lepidosaurs. We also identified several genes whose GC-content might have been influenced by the size of the chromosomes on which they were harbored over the course of sauropsid evolution.
PMCID: PMC3549455  PMID: 23140509
GC-content; Lepidosauria; Snake; Macrochromosome; Microchromosome
8.  Transitional fossils and the origin of turtles 
Biology Letters  2010;6(6):830-833.
The origin of turtles is one of the most contentious issues in systematics with three currently viable hypotheses: turtles as the extant sister to (i) the crocodile–bird clade, (ii) the lizard–tuatara clade, or (iii) Diapsida (a clade composed of (i) and (ii)). We reanalysed a recent dataset that allied turtles with the lizard–tuatara clade and found that the inclusion of the stem turtle Proganochelys quenstedti and the ‘parareptile’ Eunotosaurus africanus results in a single overriding morphological signal, with turtles outside Diapsida. This result reflects the importance of transitional fossils when long branches separate crown clades, and highlights unexplored issues such as the role of topological congruence when using fossils to calibrate molecular clocks.
PMCID: PMC3001370  PMID: 20534602
turtle; Diapsida; molecular clock; transitional fossil; Eunotosaurus africanus; Odontochelys semitestacea
9.  A general scenario of Hox gene inventory variation among major sarcopterygian lineages 
Hox genes are known to play a key role in shaping the body plan of metazoans. Evolutionary dynamics of these genes is therefore essential in explaining patterns of evolutionary diversity. Among extant sarcopterygians comprising both lobe-finned fishes and tetrapods, our knowledge of the Hox genes and clusters has largely been restricted in several model organisms such as frogs, birds and mammals. Some evolutionary gaps still exist, especially for those groups with derived body morphology or occupying key positions on the tree of life, hindering our understanding of how Hox gene inventory varied along the sarcopterygian lineage.
We determined the Hox gene inventory for six sarcopterygian groups: lungfishes, caecilians, salamanders, snakes, turtles and crocodiles by comprehensive PCR survey and genome walking. Variable Hox genes in each of the six sarcopterygian group representatives, compared to the human Hox gene inventory, were further validated for their presence/absence by PCR survey in a number of related species representing a broad evolutionary coverage of the group. Turtles, crocodiles, birds and placental mammals possess the same 39 Hox genes. HoxD12 is absent in snakes, amphibians and probably lungfishes. HoxB13 is lost in frogs and caecilians. Lobe-finned fishes, amphibians and squamate reptiles possess HoxC3. HoxC1 is only present in caecilians and lobe-finned fishes. Similar to coelacanths, lungfishes also possess HoxA14, which is only found in lobe-finned fishes to date. Our Hox gene variation data favor the lungfish-tetrapod, turtle-archosaur and frog-salamander relationships and imply that the loss of HoxD12 is not directly related to digit reduction.
Our newly determined Hox inventory data provide a more complete scenario for evolutionary dynamics of Hox genes along the sarcopterygian lineage. Limbless, worm-like caecilians and snakes possess similar Hox gene inventories to animals with less derived body morphology, suggesting changes to their body morphology are likely due to other modifications rather than changes to Hox gene numbers. Furthermore, our results provide basis for future sequencing of the entire Hox clusters of these animals.
PMCID: PMC3038165  PMID: 21266090
10.  The mitochondrial genomes of the iguana (Iguana iguana) and the caiman (Caiman crocodylus): implications for amniote phylogeny. 
The complete mitochondrial genomes of two reptiles, the common iguana (Iguana iguana) and the caiman (Caiman crocodylus), were sequenced in order to investigate phylogenetic questions of tetrapod evolution. The addition of the two species allows analysis of reptilian relationships using data sets other than those including only fast-evolving species. The crocodilian mitochondrial genomes seem to have evolved generally at a higher rate than those of other vertebrates. Phylogenetic analyses of 2889 amino-acid sites from 35 mitochondrial genomes supported the bird-crocodile relationship, lending no support to the Haematotherma hypothesis (with birds and mammals representing sister groups). The analyses corroborated the view that turtles are at the base of the bird-crocodile branch. This position of the turtles makes Diapsida paraphyletic. The origin of the squamates was estimated at 294 million years (Myr) ago and that of the turtles at 278 Myr ago. Phylogenetic analysis of mammalian relationships using the additional outgroups corroborated the Marsupionta hypothesis, which joins the monotremes and the marsupials to the exclusion of the eutherians.
PMCID: PMC1088649  PMID: 11297180
11.  Three crocodilian genomes reveal ancestral patterns of evolution among archosaurs 
Science (New York, N.Y.)  2014;346(6215):1254449.
To provide context for the diversifications of archosaurs, the group that includes crocodilians, dinosaurs and birds, we generated draft genomes of three crocodilians, Alligator mississippiensis (the American alligator), Crocodylus porosus (the saltwater crocodile), and Gavialis gangeticus (the Indian gharial). We observed an exceptionally slow rate of genome evolution within crocodilians at all levels, including nucleotide substitutions, indels, transposable element content and movement, gene family evolution, and chromosomal synteny. When placed within the context of related taxa including birds and turtles, this suggests that the common ancestor of all of these taxa also exhibited slow genome evolution and that the relatively rapid evolution of bird genomes represents an autapomorphy within that clade. The data also provided the opportunity to analyze heterozygosity in crocodilians, which indicates a likely reduction in population size for all three taxa through the Pleistocene. Finally, these new data combined with newly published bird genomes allowed us to reconstruct the partial genome of the common ancestor of archosaurs providing a tool to investigate the genetic starting material of crocodilians, birds, and dinosaurs.
PMCID: PMC4386873  PMID: 25504731
12.  Divergent Palate Morphology in Turtles and Birds Correlates With Differences in Proliferation and BMP2 Expression During Embryonic Development 
During embryonic development, amniotes typically form outgrowths from the medial sides of the maxillary prominences called palatal shelves or palatine processes. In mammals the shelves fuse in the midline and form a bony hard palate that completely separates the nasal and oral cavities. In birds and lizards, palatine processes develop but remain unfused, leaving a natural cleft. Adult turtles do not possess palatine processes and unlike other amniotes, the internal nares open into the oral cavity. Here we investigate craniofacial ontogeny in the turtle, Emydura subglobosa to determine whether vestigial palatine processes develop and subsequently regress, or whether development fails entirely. We found that the primary palate in turtles develops similarly to other amniotes, but secondary palate ontogeny diverges. Using histology, cellular dynamics and in situ hybridization we found no evidence of palatine process development at any time during ontogeny of the face in the turtle. Furthermore, detailed comparisons with chicken embryos (the model organism most closely related to turtles from a molecular phylogeny perspective), we identified differences in proliferation and gene expression patterns that correlate with the differences in palate morphology. We propose that, in turtles, palatine process outgrowth is never initiated due to a lack of mesenchymal bone morphogenetic protein 2 (BMP2) expression in the maxillary mesenchyme, which in turn fails to induce the relatively higher cellular proliferation required for medial tissue outgrowth. It is likely that these differences between turtles and birds arose after the divergence of the lineage leading to modern turtles.
PMCID: PMC4076469  PMID: 24323766
13.  The western painted turtle genome, a model for the evolution of extreme physiological adaptations in a slowly evolving lineage 
Genome Biology  2013;14(3):R28.
We describe the genome of the western painted turtle, Chrysemys picta bellii, one of the most widespread, abundant, and well-studied turtles. We place the genome into a comparative evolutionary context, and focus on genomic features associated with tooth loss, immune function, longevity, sex differentiation and determination, and the species' physiological capacities to withstand extreme anoxia and tissue freezing.
Our phylogenetic analyses confirm that turtles are the sister group to living archosaurs, and demonstrate an extraordinarily slow rate of sequence evolution in the painted turtle. The ability of the painted turtle to withstand complete anoxia and partial freezing appears to be associated with common vertebrate gene networks, and we identify candidate genes for future functional analyses. Tooth loss shares a common pattern of pseudogenization and degradation of tooth-specific genes with birds, although the rate of accumulation of mutations is much slower in the painted turtle. Genes associated with sex differentiation generally reflect phylogeny rather than convergence in sex determination functionality. Among gene families that demonstrate exceptional expansions or show signatures of strong natural selection, immune function and musculoskeletal patterning genes are consistently over-represented.
Our comparative genomic analyses indicate that common vertebrate regulatory networks, some of which have analogs in human diseases, are often involved in the western painted turtle's extraordinary physiological capacities. As these regulatory pathways are analyzed at the functional level, the painted turtle may offer important insights into the management of a number of human health disorders.
PMCID: PMC4054807  PMID: 23537068
Amniote phylogeny; anoxia tolerance; chelonian; freeze tolerance; genomics; longevity; phylogenomics; physiology; turtle; evolutionary rates
14.  A sinemydid turtle from the Jehol Biota provides insights into the basal divergence of crown turtles 
Scientific Reports  2015;5:16299.
Morphological phylogenies stand in a major conflict with molecular hypotheses regarding the phylogeny of Cryptodira, the most diverse and widely distributed clade of extant turtles. However, molecular hypotheses are often considered a better estimate of phylogeny given that it is more consistent with the stratigraphic and geographic distribution of extinct taxa. That morphology fails to reproduce the molecular topology partly originates from problematic character polarization due to yet another contradiction around the composition of the cryptodiran stem lineage. Extinct sinemydids are one of these problematic clades: they have been either placed among stem-cryptodires, stem-chelonioid sea turtles, or even stem-turtles. A new sinemydid from the Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota (Yixian Formation, Barremian-Early Aptian) of China, Xiaochelys ningchengensis gen. et sp. nov., allows for a reassessment of the phylogenetic position of Sinemydidae. Our analysis indicates that sinemydids mostly share symplesiomorphies with sea turtles and their purported placement outside the crown-group of turtles is an artefact of previous datasets. The best current phylogenetic estimate is therefore that sinemydids are part of the stem lineage of Cryptodira together with an array of other Jurassic to Cretaceous taxa. Our study further emphasises the importance of using molecular scaffolds in global turtle analyses.
PMCID: PMC4639786  PMID: 26553740
15.  Inference of the Protokaryotypes of Amniotes and Tetrapods and the Evolutionary Processes of Microchromosomes from Comparative Gene Mapping 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(12):e53027.
Comparative genome analysis of non-avian reptiles and amphibians provides important clues about the process of genome evolution in tetrapods. However, there is still only limited information available on the genome structures of these organisms. Consequently, the protokaryotypes of amniotes and tetrapods and the evolutionary processes of microchromosomes in tetrapods remain poorly understood. We constructed chromosome maps of functional genes for the Chinese soft-shelled turtle (Pelodiscus sinensis), the Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis), and the Western clawed frog (Xenopus tropicalis) and compared them with genome and/or chromosome maps of other tetrapod species (salamander, lizard, snake, chicken, and human). This is the first report on the protokaryotypes of amniotes and tetrapods and the evolutionary processes of microchromosomes inferred from comparative genomic analysis of vertebrates, which cover all major non-avian reptilian taxa (Squamata, Crocodilia, Testudines). The eight largest macrochromosomes of the turtle and chicken were equivalent, and 11 linkage groups had also remained intact in the crocodile. Linkage groups of the chicken macrochromosomes were also highly conserved in X. tropicalis, two squamates, and the salamander, but not in human. Chicken microchromosomal linkages were conserved in the squamates, which have fewer microchromosomes than chicken, and also in Xenopus and the salamander, which both lack microchromosomes; in the latter, the chicken microchromosomal segments have been integrated into macrochromosomes. Our present findings open up the possibility that the ancestral amniotes and tetrapods had at least 10 large genetic linkage groups and many microchromosomes, which corresponded to the chicken macro- and microchromosomes, respectively. The turtle and chicken might retain the microchromosomes of the amniote protokaryotype almost intact. The decrease in number and/or disappearance of microchromosomes by repeated chromosomal fusions probably occurred independently in the amphibian, squamate, crocodilian, and mammalian lineages.
PMCID: PMC3534110  PMID: 23300852
16.  A Phylogenomic Approach to Vertebrate Phylogeny Supports a Turtle-Archosaur Affinity and a Possible Paraphyletic Lissamphibia 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(11):e48990.
In resolving the vertebrate tree of life, two fundamental questions remain: 1) what is the phylogenetic position of turtles within amniotes, and 2) what are the relationships between the three major lissamphibian (extant amphibian) groups? These relationships have historically been difficult to resolve, with five different hypotheses proposed for turtle placement, and four proposed branching patterns within Lissamphibia. We compiled a large cDNA/EST dataset for vertebrates (75 genes for 129 taxa) to address these outstanding questions. Gene-specific phylogenetic analyses revealed a great deal of variation in preferred topology, resulting in topologically ambiguous conclusions from the combined dataset. Due to consistent preferences for the same divergent topologies across genes, we suspected systematic phylogenetic error as a cause of some variation. Accordingly, we developed and tested a novel statistical method that identifies sites that have a high probability of containing biased signal for a specific phylogenetic relationship. After removing putatively biased sites, support emerged for a sister relationship between turtles and either crocodilians or archosaurs, as well as for a caecilian-salamander sister relationship within Lissamphibia, with Lissamphibia potentially paraphyletic.
PMCID: PMC3492174  PMID: 23145043
17.  Early Mesozoic Coexistence of Amniotes and Hepadnaviridae 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(12):e1004559.
Hepadnaviridae are double-stranded DNA viruses that infect some species of birds and mammals. This includes humans, where hepatitis B viruses (HBVs) are prevalent pathogens in considerable parts of the global population. Recently, endogenized sequences of HBVs (eHBVs) have been discovered in bird genomes where they constitute direct evidence for the coexistence of these viruses and their hosts from the late Mesozoic until present. Nevertheless, virtually nothing is known about the ancient host range of this virus family in other animals. Here we report the first eHBVs from crocodilian, snake, and turtle genomes, including a turtle eHBV that endogenized >207 million years ago. This genomic “fossil” is >125 million years older than the oldest avian eHBV and provides the first direct evidence that Hepadnaviridae already existed during the Early Mesozoic. This implies that the Mesozoic fossil record of HBV infection spans three of the five major groups of land vertebrates, namely birds, crocodilians, and turtles. We show that the deep phylogenetic relationships of HBVs are largely congruent with the deep phylogeny of their amniote hosts, which suggests an ancient amniote–HBV coexistence and codivergence, at least since the Early Mesozoic. Notably, the organization of overlapping genes as well as the structure of elements involved in viral replication has remained highly conserved among HBVs along that time span, except for the presence of the X gene. We provide multiple lines of evidence that the tumor-promoting X protein of mammalian HBVs lacks a homolog in all other hepadnaviruses and propose a novel scenario for the emergence of X via segmental duplication and overprinting of pre-existing reading frames in the ancestor of mammalian HBVs. Our study reveals an unforeseen host range of prehistoric HBVs and provides novel insights into the genome evolution of hepadnaviruses throughout their long-lasting association with amniote hosts.
Author Summary
Viruses are not known to leave physical fossil traces, which makes our understanding of their evolutionary prehistory crucially dependent on the detection of endogenous viruses. Ancient endogenous viruses, also known as paleoviruses, are relics of viral genomes or fragments thereof that once infiltrated their host's germline and then remained as molecular “fossils” within the host genome. The massive genome sequencing of recent years has unearthed vast numbers of paleoviruses from various animal genomes, including the first endogenous hepatitis B viruses (eHBVs) in bird genomes. We screened genomes of land vertebrates (amniotes) for the presence of paleoviruses and identified ancient eHBVs in the recently sequenced genomes of crocodilians, snakes, and turtles. We report an eHBV that is >207 million years old, making it the oldest endogenous virus currently known. Furthermore, our results provide direct evidence that the Hepadnaviridae virus family infected birds, crocodilians and turtles during the Mesozoic Era, and suggest a long-lasting coexistence of these viruses and their amniote hosts at least since the Early Mesozoic. We challenge previous views on the origin of the oncogenic X gene and provide an evolutionary explanation as to why only mammalian hepatitis B infection leads to hepatocellular carcinoma.
PMCID: PMC4263362  PMID: 25501991
18.  On the Morphological Description of Tracheal and Esophageal Displacement and Its Phylogenetic Distribution in Avialae 
PLoS ONE  2016;11(9):e0163348.
This research examines the evolution and phylogenetic distribution of a peculiar and often overlooked character seen in birds, herein called tracheal and esophageal displacement. Tracheal and esophageal displacement refers to an asymmetrically situated trachea and/or esophagus along the length of the neck. This contrasts with what would be perceived as the “normal” (midsagittal) placement of these organs, wherein the two organs are situated along the ventral midline of the neck with no deviation. A total of forty-two bird species were examined (thirty-six of which came from dissections whereas six came from comments from previous literature or personal observations), as well as turtles, lizards, crocodylians, and mammals. This study found that essentially all birds have a laterally displaced trachea and/or esophagus. Lizards and mammals were seen to have normal, midsagittally placed tracheae and esophagi. Crocodylians were interesting in that alligators were defined by a normally situated trachea and esophagus whereas some crocodiles were characterized by displacement. In birds, the displacement may occur gradually along the neck, or it may happen immediately upon exiting the oropharynx. Displacement of these organs in birds is the result of a heavily modified neck wherein muscles that restrict mobility of the trachea and esophagus in lizards, alligators, and mammals (e.g., m. episternocleidomastoideus, m. omohyoideus, and m. sternohyoideus) no longer substantially restrict positions of the trachea and esophagus in birds. Rather, these muscles are modified in ways which may assist with making tracheal movements. The implications of this study may provide interesting insights for future comparisons in extinct taxa.
PMCID: PMC5029910  PMID: 27648952
19.  New clade of enigmatic early archosaurs yields insights into early pseudosuchian phylogeny and the biogeography of the archosaur radiation 
The origin and early radiation of archosaurs and closely related taxa (Archosauriformes) during the Triassic was a critical event in the evolutionary history of tetrapods. This radiation led to the dinosaur-dominated ecosystems of the Jurassic and Cretaceous, and the high present-day archosaur diversity that includes around 10,000 bird and crocodylian species. The timing and dynamics of this evolutionary radiation are currently obscured by the poorly constrained phylogenetic positions of several key early archosauriform taxa, including several species from the Middle Triassic of Argentina (Gracilisuchus stipanicicorum) and China (Turfanosuchus dabanensis, Yonghesuchus sangbiensis). These species act as unstable ‘wildcards’ in morphological phylogenetic analyses, reducing phylogenetic resolution.
We present new anatomical data for the type specimens of G. stipanicicorum, T. dabanensis, and Y. sangbiensis, and carry out a new morphological phylogenetic analysis of early archosaur relationships. Our results indicate that these three previously enigmatic taxa form a well-supported clade of Middle Triassic archosaurs that we refer to as Gracilisuchidae. Gracilisuchidae is placed basally within Suchia, among the pseudosuchian (crocodile-line) archosaurs. The approximately contemporaneous and morphologically similar G. stipanicicorum and Y. sangbiensis may be sister taxa within Gracilisuchidae.
Our results provide increased resolution of the previously poorly constrained relationships of early archosaurs, with increased levels of phylogenetic support for several key early pseudosuchian clades. Moreover, they falsify previous hypotheses suggesting that T. dabanensis and Y. sangbiensis are not members of the archosaur crown group. The recognition of Gracilisuchidae provides further support for a rapid phylogenetic diversification of crown archosaurs by the Middle Triassic. The disjunct distribution of the gracilisuchid clade in China and Argentina demonstrates that early archosaurs were distributed over much or all of Pangaea although they may have initially been relatively rare members of faunal assemblages.
PMCID: PMC4061117  PMID: 24916124
Archosauria; Argentina; Biogeography; China; Gracilisuchidae; Pangaea; Phylogenetics; Suchia; Triassic
20.  Molecular decay of enamel matrix protein genes in turtles and other edentulous amniotes 
Secondary edentulism (toothlessness) has evolved on multiple occasions in amniotes including several mammalian lineages (pangolins, anteaters, baleen whales), birds, and turtles. All edentulous amniote clades have evolved from ancestors with enamel-capped teeth. Previous studies have documented the molecular decay of tooth-specific genes in edentulous mammals, all of which lost their teeth in the Cenozoic, and birds, which lost their teeth in the Cretaceous. By contrast with mammals and birds, tooth loss in turtles occurred in the Jurassic (201.6-145.5 Ma), providing an extended time window for tooth gene degradation in this clade. The release of the painted turtle and Chinese softshell turtle genomes provides an opportunity to recover the decayed remains of tooth-specific genes in Testudines.
We queried available genomes of Testudines (Chrysemys picta [painted turtle], Pelodiscus sinensis [Chinese softshell turtle]), Aves (Anas platyrhynchos [duck], Gallus gallus [chicken], Meleagris gallopavo [turkey], Melopsittacus undulatus [budgerigar], Taeniopygia guttata [zebra finch]), and enamelless mammals (Orycteropus afer [aardvark], Choloepus hoffmanni [Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth], Dasypus novemcinctus [nine-banded armadillo]) for remnants of three enamel matrix protein (EMP) genes with putative enamel-specific functions. Remnants of the AMBN and ENAM genes were recovered in Chrysemys and retain their original synteny. Remnants of AMEL were recovered in both testudines, although there are no shared frameshifts. We also show that there are inactivated copies of AMBN, AMEL and ENAM in representatives of divergent avian lineages including Galloanserae, Passeriformes, and Psittaciformes, and that there are shared frameshift mutations in all three genes that predate the basal split in Neognathae. Among enamelless mammals, all three EMP genes exhibit inactivating mutations in Orycteropus and Choloepus.
Our results highlight the power of combining fossil and genomic evidence to decipher macroevolutionary transitions and characterize the functional range of different loci involved in tooth development. The fossil record and phylogenetics combine to predict the occurrence of molecular fossils of tooth-specific genes in the genomes of edentulous amniotes, and in every case these molecular fossils have been discovered. The widespread occurrence of EMP pseudogenes in turtles, birds, and edentulous/enamelless mammals also provides compelling evidence that in amniotes, the only unique, non-redundant function of these genes is in enamel formation.
PMCID: PMC3562159  PMID: 23342979
Ameloblastin; Amelogenin; Enamel matrix protein genes; Enamelin; Pseudogenes; Testudines
21.  The draft genomes of soft–shell turtle and green sea turtle yield insights into the development and evolution of the turtle–specific body plan 
Nature genetics  2013;45(6):701-706.
The unique anatomical features of turtles have raised unanswered questions about the origin of their unique body plan. We generated and analyzed draft genomes of the soft-shell turtle (Pelodiscus sinensis) and the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas); our results indicated the close relationship of the turtles to the bird-crocodilian lineage, from which they split ~267.9–248.3 million years ago (Upper Permian to Triassic). We also found extensive expansion of olfactory receptor genes in these turtles. Embryonic gene expression analysis identified an hourglass-like divergence of turtle and chicken embryogenesis, with maximal conservation around the vertebrate phylotypic period, rather than at later stages that show the amniote-common pattern. Wnt5a expression was found in the growth zone of the dorsal shell, supporting the possible co-option of limb-associated Wnt signaling in the acquisition of this turtle-specific novelty. Our results suggest that turtle evolution was accompanied by an unexpectedly conservative vertebrate phylotypic period, followed by turtle-specific repatterning of development to yield the novel structure of the shell.
PMCID: PMC4000948  PMID: 23624526
22.  A new xinjiangchelyid turtle from the Middle Jurassic of Xinjiang, China and the evolution of the basipterygoid process in Mesozoic turtles 
Most turtles from the Middle and Late Jurassic of Asia are referred to the newly defined clade Xinjiangchelyidae, a group of mostly shell-based, generalized, small to mid-sized aquatic froms that are widely considered to represent the stem lineage of Cryptodira. Xinjiangchelyids provide us with great insights into the plesiomorphic anatomy of crown-cryptodires, the most diverse group of living turtles, and they are particularly relevant for understanding the origin and early divergence of the primary clades of extant turtles.
Exceptionally complete new xinjiangchelyid material from the ?Qigu Formation of the Turpan Basin (Xinjiang Autonomous Province, China) provides new insights into the anatomy of this group and is assigned to Xinjiangchelys wusu n. sp. A phylogenetic analysis places Xinjiangchelys wusu n. sp. in a monophyletic polytomy with other xinjiangchelyids, including Xinjiangchelys junggarensis, X. radiplicatoides, X. levensis and X. latiens. However, the analysis supports the unorthodox, though tentative placement of xinjiangchelyids and sinemydids outside of crown-group Testudines. A particularly interesting new observation is that the skull of this xinjiangchelyid retains such primitive features as a reduced interpterygoid vacuity and basipterygoid processes.
The homology of basipterygoid processes is confidently demonstrated based on a comprehensive review of the basicranial anatomy of Mesozoic turtles and a new nomenclatural system is introduced for the carotid canal system of turtles. The loss of the basipterygoid process and the bony enclosure of the carotid circulation system occurred a number of times independently during turtle evolution suggesting that the reinforcement of the basicranial region was essential for developing a rigid skull, thus paralleling the evolution of other amniote groups with massive skulls.
PMCID: PMC3852240  PMID: 24053145
23.  Physical Mapping and Refinement of the Painted Turtle Genome (Chrysemys picta) Inform Amniote Genome Evolution and Challenge Turtle-Bird Chromosomal Conservation 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2015;7(7):2038-2050.
Comparative genomics continues illuminating amniote genome evolution, but for many lineages our understanding remains incomplete. Here, we refine the assembly (CPI 3.0.3 NCBI AHGY00000000.2) and develop a cytogenetic map of the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta—CPI) genome, the first in turtles and in vertebrates with temperature-dependent sex determination. A comparison of turtle genomes with those of chicken, selected nonavian reptiles, and human revealed shared and novel genomic features, such as numerous chromosomal rearrangements. The largest conserved syntenic blocks between birds and turtles exist in four macrochromosomes, whereas rearrangements were evident in these and other chromosomes, disproving that turtles and birds retain fully conserved macrochromosomes for greater than 300 Myr. C-banding revealed large heterochromatic blocks in the centromeric region of only few chromosomes. The nucleolar-organizing region (NOR) mapped to a single CPI microchromosome, whereas in some turtles and lizards the NOR maps to nonhomologous sex-chromosomes, thus revealing independent translocations of the NOR in various reptilian lineages. There was no evidence for recent chromosomal fusions as interstitial telomeric-DNA was absent. Some repeat elements (CR1-like, Gypsy) were enriched in the centromeres of five chromosomes, whereas others were widespread in the CPI genome. Bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) clones were hybridized to 18 of the 25 CPI chromosomes and anchored to a G-banded ideogram. Several CPI sex-determining genes mapped to five chromosomes, and homology was detected between yet other CPI autosomes and the globally nonhomologous sex chromosomes of chicken, other turtles, and squamates, underscoring the independent evolution of vertebrate sex-determining mechanisms.
PMCID: PMC4524486  PMID: 26108489
physical molecular cytogenetic BAC clone mapping; chromosomal rearrangements; genome and chromosome evolution; translocations and inversions; nonmodel vertebrates; turtles; chicken; human; temperature-dependent and genotypic sex determination
24.  Multiple Lineages of Ancient CR1 Retroposons Shaped the Early Genome Evolution of Amniotes 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2014;7(1):205-217.
Chicken repeat 1 (CR1) retroposons are long interspersed elements (LINEs) that are ubiquitous within amniote genomes and constitute the most abundant family of transposed elements in birds, crocodilians, turtles, and snakes. They are also present in mammalian genomes, where they reside as numerous relics of ancient retroposition events. Yet, despite their relevance for understanding amniote genome evolution, the diversity and evolution of CR1 elements has never been studied on an amniote-wide level. We reconstruct the temporal and quantitative activity of CR1 subfamilies via presence/absence analyses across crocodilian phylogeny and comparative analyses of 12 crocodilian genomes, revealing relative genomic stasis of retroposition during genome evolution of extant Crocodylia. Our large-scale phylogenetic analysis of amniote CR1 subfamilies suggests the presence of at least seven ancient CR1 lineages in the amniote ancestor; and amniote-wide analyses of CR1 successions and quantities reveal differential retention (presence of ancient relics or recent activity) of these CR1 lineages across amniote genome evolution. Interestingly, birds and lepidosaurs retained the fewest ancient CR1 lineages among amniotes and also exhibit smaller genome sizes. Our study is the first to analyze CR1 evolution in a genome-wide and amniote-wide context and the data strongly suggest that the ancestral amniote genome contained myriad CR1 elements from multiple ancient lineages, and remnants of these are still detectable in the relatively stable genomes of crocodilians and turtles. Early mammalian genome evolution was thus characterized by a drastic shift from CR1 prevalence to dominance and hyperactivity of L2 LINEs in monotremes and L1 LINEs in therians.
PMCID: PMC4316615  PMID: 25503085
transposable elements; chicken repeat 1; phylogenomics; comparative genomics; crocodilian genomes; amniotes
25.  An early bothremydid (Testudines, Pleurodira) from the Late Cretaceous (Cenomanian) of Utah, North America 
PeerJ  2016;4:e2502.
Bothremydidae is a clade of extinct pleurodiran turtles known from the Cretaceous to Paleogene of Africa, Europe, India, Madagascar, and North and South America. The group is most diverse during the Late Cretaceous to Paleogene of Africa. Little is known, however, about the early evolution of the group.
We here figure and describe a fossil turtle from early Late Cretaceous deposits exposed at MacFarlane Mine in Cedar Canyon, southwestern Utah, USA. The sediments associated with the new turtle are utilized to infer its stratigraphic provenience and the depositional settings in which it was deposited. The fossil is compared to previously described fossil pleurodires, integrated into a modified phylogenetic analysis of pelomedusoid turtles, and the biogeography of bothremydid turtles is reassessed. In light of the novel phylogenetic hypotheses, six previously established taxon names are converted to phylogenetically defined clade names to aid communication.
The new fossil turtle can be inferred with confidence to have originated from a brackish water facies within the late Cenomanian Culver Coal Zone of the Naturita Formation. The fossil can be distinguished from all other previously described pleurodires and is therefore designated as a new taxon, Paiutemys tibert gen. et. sp. nov. Phylogenetic analysis places the new taxon as sister to the European Polysternon provinciale, Foxemys trabanti and Foxemys mechinorum at the base of Bothremydinae. Biogeographic analysis suggests that bothremydids originated as continental turtles in Gondwana, but that bothremydines adapted to near-shore marine conditions and therefore should be seen as having a circum-Atlantic distribution.
PMCID: PMC5045886  PMID: 27703852
Late cretaceous; Paleobiogeography; Cenomanian; Utah; Naturita formation; Testudines; Pleurodira; Bothremydidae; Paiutemys tibert

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