Topology of Feather Melanocyte Progenitor Niche Allows Complex Pigment Patterns to Emerge

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Science  21 Jun 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6139, pp. 1442-1445
DOI: 10.1126/science.1230374

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Feather Features

Diversification of feather pigment patterns is essential for avian speciation and adaptation. Yet the identity of feather pigment progenitor cells and the cellular and molecular basis for feather pigment pattern formation is poorly understood. Lin et al. (p. 1442, published online 25 April) report that, compared to the localized pigment cell niche in hair, a more dispersed circular topology of the feather pigment progenitor niche loosens spatial constraints and allows for more freedom in patterning possibilities. Multiple cellular mechanisms are co-opted and choreographed in this multidimensional space to create patterns.


Color patterns of bird plumage affect animal behavior and speciation. Diverse patterns are present in different species and within the individual. Here, we study the cellular and molecular basis of feather pigment pattern formation. Melanocyte progenitors are distributed as a horizontal ring in the proximal follicle, sending melanocytes vertically up into the epithelial cylinder, which gradually emerges as feathers grow. Different pigment patterns form by modulating the presence, arrangement, or differentiation of melanocytes. A layer of peripheral pulp further regulates pigmentation via patterned agouti expression. Lifetime feather cyclic regeneration resets pigment patterns for physiological needs. Thus, the evolution of stem cell niche topology allows complex pigment patterning through combinatorial co-option of simple regulatory mechanisms.

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