Unlocking the genetic secrets of avian hairstyles

February 1, 2013

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Sir Walter Murdoch Adjunct Professor Thomas Gilbert is part of an international team that has helped decode the genetic blueprint of the common pigeon (Rock Pigeon/Feral Pigeon) in a breakthrough that sheds light into the minute building blocks of evolution.

Published in the journal Science, the study assembled 1.1 billion base pairs of DNA in the Rock Pigeon genome from 17,300 genes.

Among the discoveries were finding conclusive evidence that major pigeon breed groups originated in the Middle East and identifying a single gene responsible for variation in head crests on certain breeds.

“We found evidence that the often distinctive head crests in some breeds are actually the result of a mutation in a single gene, Ephb2 (Ephrin receptor B2), which acts like an on-off switch to create a crest when mutant and no crest when normal,” Professor Gilbert said.

“Over 80 of the 350 pigeon breeds worldwide have head crests, and these play a role in attracting mates in many species. When you consider the vast variation in plumage of species like pigeons and chickens, you realise the importance of gene function.”

Professor Gilbert said the pigeon crest data had some very interesting implications for Australian birds, for example, cockatoos.

“Cockatoos are known for their movable crest. It would be fascinating to chase up a few genetic targets to see what drives variation in these iconic birds," he said.

Associate Professor Mike Bunce of Murdoch University’s Ancient DNA Laboratory said the work was highly significant.

“This project provides a roadmap for future research into how the world’s variation in appearance has come into being, not just in birds, but in other animals as well,” Professor Bunce said.

“Understanding traits in the Rock Pigeon’s DNA, together with other bird species, opens up the door to comparative genomics to get to the basis of what each gene does. Professor Gilbert is expanding this research to look at the genomes of many other avian species, so watch this space.”

Professor Gilbert is part of Murdoch University’s Sir Walter Murdoch Adjunct Professorial Scheme, which is committed to bringing world-class researchers to Murdoch University and Western Australia.

The project and paper ‘Genomic Diversity and Evolution of the Head Crest in the Rock Pigeon’ includes researchers from the University of Utah, Beijing Genomics Institute – Shenzhen, University of Copenhagen and University of Texas.

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