Rock Pigeon Style; Scientists Reveal Secrets of Their Crest

First Posted: Jan 31, 2013 02:49 PM EST

After seeing thousands of pigeons in large cities like New York or Boston, you may think that one pigeon is like all the rest. Unfortunately, you're incorrect. Pigeons are a lot like dogs. Their traits range as widely as their appearances which can include head crests, fluffy feet and fanned tails. Now, scientists have sequenced the rock pigeon genome to tap into that diversity to track down the genetic basis for just one of these traits: the head crest.

Pigeons have been bred for centuries, creating more than 350 breeds which are used in shows and competitions. In the 19th century, there were only 150 breeds known-all descended from the rock dove, also known as the rock pigeon.

Michael Shapiro, an evolutionary biology at the University of Utah, and his colleagues began collecting blood samples and feathers from pigeons for DNA analysis in 2008. Head crests, in particular, seemed like an interesting trait to study since different breeds boasted different designs.

Shapiro and BGI-Shenzhen in China then sequenced the pigeon genome and 40 other pigeon genomes-including breeds with and without head crests. Using a computer program originally designed to find DNA variants important in human disease, the researchers homed in on places in the genome which were likely candidates for the head crest trait. Finally, they found that a single base change caused a protein to have a different amino acid at a crucial spot, which creates the crest trait.

The research shows how just a single gene change can have a profound effect on how a trait is expressed. Now Shapiro and his team are looking at other traits and hope to find exactly what genes are involved in creating them.

The study was published online in the journal Science.

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