Body hair is a defining mammalian characteristic, but several mammals, such as whales, naked mole-rats, and humans, have notably less hair. To find the genetic basis of reduced hair quantity, we used our evolutionary-rates-based method, RERconverge, to identify coding and noncoding sequences that evolve at significantly different rates in so-called hairless mammals compared to hairy mammals. Using RERconverge, we performed a genome-wide scan over 62 mammal species using 19,149 genes and 343,598 conserved noncoding regions. In addition to detecting known and potential novel hair-related genes, we also discovered hundreds of putative hair-related regulatory elements. Computational investigation revealed that genes and their associated noncoding regions show different evolutionary patterns and influence different aspects of hair growth and development. Many genes under accelerated evolution are associated with the structure of the hair shaft itself, while evolutionary rate shifts in noncoding regions also included the dermal papilla and matrix regions of the hair follicle that contribute to hair growth and cycling. Genes that were top ranked for coding sequence acceleration included known hair and skin genes KRT2, KRT35, PKP1, and PTPRM that surprisingly showed no signals of evolutionary rate shifts in nearby noncoding regions. Conversely, accelerated noncoding regions are most strongly enriched near regulatory hair-related genes and microRNAs, such as mir205, ELF3, and FOXC1, that themselves do not show rate shifts in their protein-coding sequences. Such dichotomy highlights the interplay between the evolution of protein sequence and regulatory sequence to contribute to the emergence of a convergent phenotype.
Several mammal species, including dolphins, have evolved to be relatively "hairless". In this important work, Kowalczyk and colleagues scan the genomes of multiple species to identify genomic regions that appear to have evolved at a faster or slower evolutionary rate along hairless lineages. Using convincing analyses, they identify a number of protein-coding genes as well as noncoding regions that might explain how hairlessness evolved in mammals. This study is of interest to those investigating the development of the skin and its appendages as well as evolutionary biologists, especially those investigating instances of convergent evolution and those developing phylogenomic methods for genome comparisons.