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Mutant gene responsible for pigeons' head crests

Scientists have decoded the genetic blueprint of the rock pigeon, unlocking secrets about pigeons' Middle East origins, feral pigeons' kinship with escaped racing birds and how mutations give pigeons traits like feather head crests.

"Birds are a huge part of life on Earth, but we know surprisingly little about their genetics," says Michael Shapiro, one of the study's two principal authors and a biologist at the University of Utah.

In the new study, "we've shown a way forward to find the genetic basis of traits--the molecular mechanisms controlling animal diversity in pigeons," he says. "Using this approach, we expect to be able to do this for other traits in pigeons, and it can be applied to other birds and many other animals as well."

The findings appear in a paper published this week in the online journal Science Express.

Shapiro conducted the research with Jun Wang of China's BGI-Shenzhen (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and other scientists from BGI, the University of Utah, Denmark's University of Copenhagen and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"The research identified the genes contributing to variation in the avian head crest, using the domesticated pigeons that so fascinated and inspired Charles Darwin in developing his theory of natural selection," says George Gilchrist, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research. "This finding illustrates the power of comparative genomics."

Pigeons were domesticated some 5,000 years ago in the Mediterranean region. Key results of this study include sequencing of the genome of the rock pigeon Columba livia, which is among the most common bird species.

There are some 350 breeds of rock pigeons--all with different sizes, shapes, colors, color patterns, beaks, bone structure, vocalizations and arrangements of feathers on the feet and head--in

Contact: Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation

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