Hair's Surprise Origin: Clawed Frog Study Reveals Ancient Genetic Link

The humble hair on our heads may have a more surprising origin than previously thought. A new study led by researchers at MedUni Vienna has unlocked a key piece of the puzzle behind hair's evolution, and it points all the way back to amphibians.

Published in Nature Communications, the research delves into the genetic underpinnings of hair growth.  For scientists, understanding how hair evolved has been a lingering question. This latest investigation used the African clawed frog (Xenopus tropicalis) as a model organism to examine the development of skin appendages, which includes hair and nails in mammals.

The surprising finding? The researchers discovered that the hardened claws of these frogs share a crucial similarity with mammalian hair and nails: their building blocks.  Both frog claws and mammalian hair are constructed from special proteins called keratins.

But the plot thickens.  The study goes a step further, revealing that the same gene, Hoxc13, controls the production of these keratins in both frogs and humans.  Interestingly, mutations in this very gene have been linked to hair and nail growth defects in humans.

"We were able to block claw formation in the frogs by switching off this gene," explains Leopold Eckhart from MedUni Vienna's Department of Dermatology.  "This suggests that the genetic program for developing these keratinized claws goes back to a common ancestor shared by humans and frogs."

Eckhart proposes that during mammalian evolution, this claw-building program was repurposed to create hair.

This research not only sheds light on the ancient origins of hair, but it also holds potential for future studies.  "Understanding how hair development is regulated in other species can improve our understanding of hair growth in humans," says Eckhart.  "This paves the way for exciting new avenues in basic and preclinical research."

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