Pedomorphosis revisited: thyroid hormone receptors are functional in Necturus maculosus

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Heterochrony, a difference in developmental timing, is a central concept in modern evolutionary biology. An example is pedomorphosis, retention of juvenile characteristics in sexually mature adults, a phenomenon largely represented in salamanders. The mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) is an obligate pedomorphic amphibian, never undergoing metamorphosis. Thyroid hormone induces tissue transformation in metamorphosing species and this action is mediated by nuclear thyroid hormone (TH) receptors (TRs). The absence of metamorphosis in Necturus has been attributed to a resistance to TH action as treatment with exogenous TH fails to induce transformation. The failure to metamorphose could be due to the lack of TR expression in target tissues, or to a loss of TR function. Toward understanding the molecular basis for the failure of Necturus tissues to respond to TH, and the ultimate cause for the expression of the obligate pedomorphic life history, we characterized the structure, function, and expression of TR genes in Necturus. Strikingly, we found that Necturus TRα and TRβ genes encode fully functional TR proteins. These TRs bind both DNA and TH and can transactivate target genes in response to TH. Both TRα and TRβ are expressed in various tissues. TH treatment in vivo induced expression in the gill of some but not all genes known to be activated by TH in anuran larvae, caused whole organism metabolic effects, but induced no external morphological changes in adults or larvae. Thus, Necturus possesses fully functional TRs and its tissues are not generally resistant to the actions of TH. Rather, the absence of metamorphosis may be due to the loss of TH‐dependent control of key genes required for tissue transformation.