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Meckel’s cartilage breakdown offers clues to mammalian middle ear evolution


A key transformation in mammalian ear evolution was incorporation of the primary jaw joint of premammalian synapsids into the definitive mammalian middle ear of living mammals. This evolutionary transition occurred in two steps, starting with a partial or ‘transitional’ mammalian middle ear in which the ectotympanic and malleus were still connected to the mandible by an ossified Meckel’s cartilage (MC), as observed in many Mesozoic mammals. This was followed by MC breakdown, freeing the ectotympanic and the malleus from the mandible and creating the definitive mammalian middle ear. Here we report new findings on the role of chondroclasts in MC breakdown, shedding light on how therian mammals lost the part of the MC connecting the ear to the jaw. Genetic or pharmacological loss of clast cells in mice and opossums leads to persistence of embryonic MC beyond juvenile stages, with MC ossification in mutant mice. The persistent MC causes a distinctive groove on the postnatal mouse dentary. This morphology phenocopies the ossified MC and Meckelian groove observed in Mesozoic mammals. Clast cell recruitment to MC is not observed in reptiles, where MC persists as a cartilaginous structure. We hypothesize that ossification of MC is an ancestral feature of mammaliaforms, and that a shift in the timing of clast cell recruitment to MC prior to its ossification is a key developmental mechanism for the evolution of the definitive mammalian middle ear in extant therians.

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Figure 1: c-Fos mutant mice mimic morphologies of PMME (‘TMME’) in fossil mammaliaforms.
Figure 2: Detachment of the malleus in mammals is due to recruitment of c-Fos-dependent chondroclasts.
Figure 3: Formation of Meckelian groove as evidence for presence of retained MC in mammaliaforms.
Figure 4: Clast cell inhibition in the opossum Monodelphis domestica.


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We thank C. Healy (KCL) and L. Yin (UIUC) for support with μCT, E. Popa (King’s College London, KCL) for assistance in processing tissue, J. M. Fons (KCL) for injection of newborn mice, A. Neander (University of Chicago) for graphics assistance, A. Grigoriadis (KCL) for supplying the c-Fos mutant mice and in situ probes, and J. Turner and F. Decarpentrie (Francis Crick Institute) for supplying opossum pups. For this project, N.A. was supported by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2013-070) and the Wellcome Trust (102889/Z/13/Z) and NSF/EDEN Research Exchange Grant (IOS 0955517) A.S.T. is funded by the Wellcome Trust (102889/Z/13/Z). D.J.U. was supported by a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (2013136301) and K.E.S. by a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (1406802).

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N.A. and A.S.T. conceived and designed the project. N.A. carried out mouse and reptile experimental work; K.E.S. and D.J.U. carried out opossum experimental work. Z.X.L. carried out fossil analysis. N.A. wrote the manuscript with A.S.T. A.S.T., Z.X.L, K.E.S. and D.J.U. critically appraised and edited the manuscript. All authors read and approved the manuscript before submission.

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Correspondence to Abigail S. Tucker.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Figures 1–6; Supplementary Discussion (PDF 8546 kb)

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Anthwal, N., Urban, D., Luo, ZX. et al. Meckel’s cartilage breakdown offers clues to mammalian middle ear evolution. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0093 (2017).

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