We know a fair amount about the transition from fins to hands thanks to the moderately mad obsession of paleontologists, who venture to inhospitable places around the Arctic where the best fossils from that period of our evolution are buried. (I wrote about some of those discoveries in my first book, At the Water’s Edge.)

By comparing those fossils, scientists can work out the order in which the fish body was transformed into the kind seen in amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals–collectively known as tetrapods. Of course, all that those fossils can preserve are the bones of those early tetrapods. Those bones were built by genes, which do not fossilize. Ultimately the origin of our hands is a story of how those fin-building genes changed, but that’s a story that requires more evidence than fossils to tell.

A team of Spanish scientists has provided us with a glimpse of that story.  They’ve tinkered with the genes of fish, and turned their fins into proto-limbs.

Before getting into the details of the new experiment, leap back with me 450 million years ago. That’s about the time that our early vertebrate ancestors–lamprey-like jawless fishes–evolved the first fins. By about 400 million years ago, those fins had become bony. The fins of bony fishes alive today–like salmon or goldfish–are still built according to the same basic recipe. They’re made up mostly of a stiff flap of fin rays. At the base of the fin, they contain a nubbin of bone of the sort that makes up our entire arm skeleton (known as endochondral bone). Fishes use muscles attached to the endochondral bone to maneuver their fins as they swim.

Our own fishy ancestors gradually modified this sort of fin over millions of years. The endochondral bone expanded, and the fin rays shrank back, creating a new structure known as a lobe fin. There are only two kinds of lobe fin fishes left alive today: lungfishes and coelacanths. After our ancestors split off from theirs, our fins became even more limb like. The front fins evolved bones that corresponded in shape and position to our ulna and humerus.