Research Article

Evolution of Mammalian Diving Capacity Traced by Myoglobin Net Surface Charge

Science  14 Jun 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6138,
DOI: 10.1126/science.1234192

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Structured Abstract

Introduction

Evolution of extended breath-hold endurance enables the exploitation of the aquatic niche by numerous mammalian lineages and is accomplished by elevated body oxygen stores and morphological and physiological adaptations that promote their economical use. High muscle myoglobin concentrations in particular are mechanistically linked with an extended dive capacity phenotype, yet little is known regarding the molecular and biochemical underpinnings of this key specialization. We modeled the evolutionary history of this respiratory pigment over 200 million years of mammalian evolution to elucidate the development of maximal diving capacity during the major mammalian land-to-water transitions.

Embedded Image

Evolutionary reconstruction of myoglobin net surface charge in terrestrial and aquatic mammals. The figure reveals a molecular signature of elevated myoglobin net surface charge in all lineages of living elite mammalian divers with an extended aquatic history (upper silhouettes). This signature is used here to infer the diving capacity of extinct species representing stages during mammalian land-to-water transitions (†).

Methods

We first determined the relationship between maximum myoglobin concentration and its sequence-derived net surface charge across living mammalian taxa. By using ancestral sequence reconstruction we then traced myoglobin net surface charge across a 130-species phylogeny to infer ancestral myoglobin muscle concentrations. Last, we estimated maximum dive time in extinct transitional species on the basis of the relationship of this variable with muscle myoglobin concentration and body mass in extant diving mammals.

Results

We reveal an adaptive molecular signature of elevated myoglobin net surface charge in all lineages of mammalian divers with an extended aquatic history—from 16-g water shrews to 80,000-kg whales—that correlates with exponential increases in muscle myoglobin concentrations. Integration of this data with body mass predicts 82% of maximal dive-time variation across all degrees of diving ability in living mammals.

Discussion

We suggest that the convergent evolution of high myoglobin net surface charge in mammalian divers increases intermolecular electrostatic repulsion, permitting higher muscle oxygen storage capacities without potentially deleterious self-association of the protein. Together with fossil body-mass estimates, our evolutionary reconstruction permits detailed assessments of maximal submergence times and potential foraging ecologies of early transitional ancestors of cetaceans, pinnipeds, and sea cows. Our findings support amphibious ancestries for echidnas, talpid moles, hyraxes, and elephants, thereby not only establishing the earliest land-to-water transition among placental mammals but also providing a new perspective on the evolution of myoglobin, arguably the best-known protein.

Holding Your Breath

Hemoglobin and myoglobin are widely responsible for oxygen transport and storage (see the Perspective by Rezende). The ability of diving mammals to obtain enough oxygen to support extended dives and foraging is largely dependent on muscle myoglobin (Mb) content. Mirceta et al. (p. 1234192) found that in mammalian lineages with an aquatic or semiaquatic lifestyle, Mb net charge increases, which may represent an adaptation to inhibit self-association of Mb at high intracellular concentrations. Epistasis results from nonadditive genetic interactions and can affect phenotypic evolution. Natarajan et al. (p. 1324) found that epistatic interactions were able to explain the increased hemoglobin oxygen-binding affinity observed in deer mice populations at high altitude. In mammals, the offloading of oxygen from hemoglobin is facilitated by a reduction in the blood's pH, driven by metabolically produced CO2. However, in fish, a reduction in blood pH reduces oxygen carrying capacity of hemoglobin. Rummer et al. (p. 1327) implanted fiber optic oxygen sensors within the muscles of rainbow trout and found that elevated CO2 levels in the water led to acidosis and elevated oxygen tensions.

Abstract

Extended breath-hold endurance enables the exploitation of the aquatic niche by numerous mammalian lineages and is accomplished by elevated body oxygen stores and adaptations that promote their economical use. However, little is known regarding the molecular and evolutionary underpinnings of the high muscle myoglobin concentration phenotype of divers. We used ancestral sequence reconstruction to trace the evolution of this oxygen-storing protein across a 130-species mammalian phylogeny and reveal an adaptive molecular signature of elevated myoglobin net surface charge in diving species that is mechanistically linked with maximal myoglobin concentration. This observation provides insights into the tempo and routes to enhanced dive capacity evolution within the ancestors of each major mammalian aquatic lineage and infers amphibious ancestries of echidnas, moles, hyraxes, and elephants, offering a fresh perspective on the evolution of this iconic respiratory pigment.

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