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Discovery of why emus are grounded takes flight

Discovery of why emus are grounded takes flight

The emu is one of a group of large, flightless birds around the world called ratites.

ARC-funded researchers from Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute have helped solve the mystery of how emus became flightless, identifying a gene involved in the development and evolution of bird wings.

The research, published in Nature Communications, sheds light on how genes regulate limb development and may have application to humans born with limb abnormalities.

ARC Future Fellow, Associate Professor Craig Smith, and the Comparative Development team in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology at Monash University, worked with Dr Peter Farlie, Adjunct Lecturer at the Department, and his group at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI).

They found that a gene called Nkx2.5 is turned on during the development of wings in emu embryos, but not in chickens or other birds, leading to greatly reduced wings.

The emu has vestigial wings measuring about 20 centimetres with only one small digit or claw. It is one of a group of large, flightless birds around the world called ratites.

“Until now, very little was known about the genetic basis of wing reduction during embryonic development,” Associate Professor Smith said.

“It is a well-known regulator of heart development and is mutated in some children born with heart defects. The gene may also be relevant to human limb development because it could be involved in previously unexplained congenital limb reductions.”

 

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