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Characterization of hairless (Hr) and FGF5 genes provides insights into the molecular basis of hair loss in cetaceans

Zhuo Chen12, Zhengfei Wang1, Shixia Xu1, Kaiya Zhou1 and Guang Yang1*

Author Affiliations

1 Jiangsu Key Laboratory for Biodiversity and Biotechnology, College of Life Sciences, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing, 210023, China

2 Present address: College of Life Sciences, Henan Normal University, Xinxiang, 453007, China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:34  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-34

Published: 9 February 2013



Hair is one of the main distinguishing characteristics of mammals and it has many important biological functions. Cetaceans originated from terrestrial mammals and they have evolved a series of adaptations to aquatic environments, which are of evolutionary significance. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying their aquatic adaptations have not been well explored. This study provided insights into the evolution of hair loss during the transition from land to water by investigating and comparing two essential regulators of hair follicle development and hair follicle cycling, i.e., the Hairless (Hr) and FGF5 genes, in representative cetaceans and their terrestrial relatives.


The full open reading frame sequences of the Hr and FGF5 genes were characterized in seven cetaceans. The sequence characteristics and evolutionary analyses suggested the functional loss of the Hr gene in cetaceans, which supports the loss of hair during their full adaptation to aquatic habitats. By contrast, positive selection for the FGF5 gene was found in cetaceans where a series of positively selected amino acid residues were identified.


This is the first study to investigate the molecular basis of the hair loss in cetaceans. Our investigation of Hr and FGF5, two indispensable regulators of the hair cycle, provide some new insights into the molecular basis of hair loss in cetaceans. The results suggest that positive selection for the FGF5 gene might have promoted the termination of hair growth and early entry into the catagen stage of hair follicle cycling. Consequently, the hair follicle cycle was disrupted and the hair was lost completely due to the loss of the Hr gene function in cetaceans. This suggests that cetaceans have evolved an effective and complex mechanism for hair loss.