What do humans and turtles have in common? While this may sound like a set-up for a bad joke, researchers from the Medical University of Vienna discovered we have a bit more in common with the reptiles than you might think.

In a recent genome study, a team of biologists discovered the genes for important skin proteins arose in a common ancestor of humans and turtles 310 million years ago, according to a news release.

A turtle's shell represents a highly successful evolutionary adaptation and defensive strategy that sets turtles and tortoises apart from other reptiles. For their study, led by molecular biologist Leopold Eckhart of the University Department of Dermatology at MedUni Vienna, researchers explored the genes responsible for the development of shell skin layers and compared them with the genes of human skin.

So what did researchers find? It turns out turtles evolved with a hard shell following mutations in a group of genes known as the Epidermal Differentiation Complex (EDC). This genetic variation occurred when turtles split from other reptiles roughly 250 million years ago. Additionally, researchers found the basic organization of the EDC genes found in turtles is similar to those found in humans. This suggests the prototypical EDC genes evolved in a common ancestor of the two species about 310 million years ago.  

While a turtle's shell has proteins that produce a much harder shell, the EDC genes essentially make humans' skin tougher also, or at least resistant to the penetration of microbes and allergens.

Their findings were recently published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

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