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Irish plastic surgeon and bat expert have teamed up to find the cause of cleft palate in humans

Clefts affect approximately 1 in every 700 babies in Ireland.

Image: Shutterstock/Ivan Kuzmin

A CHANCE MEETING between a plastic surgeon, a paleobiologist and a bat biology expert in Ireland could reveal the origins of cleft palates in humans.

Professor Emma Teeling was hosting a lecture on the evolution of bats when she, cleft lip and palate surgeon Dr David Orr and paleobiologist Professor John Finarelli began a discussion.

The group then realised that a certain species of bats had a condition very similar to cleft palate in humans – not as an abnormality but as a normal part of their anatomy.

They discovered that the link had not been made before, so the team investigated it in detail by anatomical dissection, micro CT scans and careful examination of images of skulls of nearly 300 species of bats.

shutterstock_459616861 Source: Shutterstock/All-stock-photos

This is the first time that something similar to cleft palate has been described as a normal phenomenon in another animal and their research, recently published in the Journal of Anatomy, has opened up a vital new avenue to investigate what genetic changes underlie clefting in human children.

Dr Orr explains how the discovery could help in identifying how and why clefts are formed in human children:

“Because some species of bats have clefts and some don’t, by comparing their genomes we may be able to pinpoint what regions of the DNA are responsible for producing clefts. This might then give us a place to look for a similar phenomenon in humans.

“Mutations or variations in several genes have been investigated in humans for a link to cleft lip and palate, but apart from some rare syndromes there is no clear picture and there is certainly no ‘gene for cleft palate’”.

Horseshoe bat Rhinolophus meheyli by Dr Sebastien Puechmaille of the University of Greiswald Germany Source: S. J. PUECHMAILLE/TCD

Some cases of animals with cleft lip and palate have been produced by mutating one or other of the important genes that embryos use to build themselves, but the resulting animals usually have other major malformations involving the head and other parts of the body.

However, most children with a cleft lip and palate are in other respects quite normal because they don’t have major disruptive mutations of these important genes.

The research team believe that it is much more likely that they have variations in subtle rather mysterious areas of the once, so called ‘junk DNA’.

Dr Orr said: “When I set out to study evolutionary biology, it was out of pure interest and curiosity. I had no preconceived plan to find out anything useful.

But that is how science really works – there is a value in looking at things just because you find them interesting. When you meet other people from different disciplines who are looking at the same thing, you make unexpected connections and often come up with something useful.

Professor Teeling, director of the Centre for Irish Bat Research said:

“The diversity and unique adapatations found in bats are providing novel ways to study and find unconventional solutions to human maladies. This is just another example of the benefit of studying and understanding these extraordinary mammals!”

Dr John Finarelli, assistant professor of vertebrate biology, UCD, said:

“This project demonstrates the power of interdisciplinary research. Combining careful anatomical dissection and observation with genetics and developmental biology has the potential to provide us with insight into some of the mechanisms underpinning a fairly common congenital defect.”

Read: Scared of the dentist? It’s in your genes

Read: Paleontologists uncover new species of dinosaur in Australia

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