A UT Arlington team exploring pigeons as a model for vertebrate evolution has uncovered that mutations and interactions among just three genes create a wide range of color variations. One of those genes, they also found, may be an example of a “slippery gene” more prone to evolutionary changes.
John “Trey” Fondon, an assistant professor of biology, is co-author of a study that begins to unravel the molecular basis for the color palette of domestic pigeons breeds known as “fancy pigeons.” Due mostly to organized breeding in Europe and Asia, there are hundreds of types of pigeons that have evolved to include numerous color variations on the blue/black model, including shades of gray, red, and brown.
The genes in the study have previously been linked to skin and hair color variation among people, as well as the development of melanoma.
“The pigeon really has been neglected as a model system, and we are changing that,” Fondon said, adding that such studies can help in an overall understanding of vertebrate systems. “The things that shape diversity also shape disease.”
The results were published online February 6 in the journal Current Biology. Eric Domyan, a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of University of Utah professor Michael Shapiro, is lead author.
Other co-authors include Shapiro; Shreyas Krishnan and Clifford Rodgers, of UT Arlington; Zev Kronenberg, Michael Guernsey, Anna Vickery and Mark Yandell, of University of Utah; Raymond Boissy, of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine; and Pamela Cassidy and Sancy Leachman, of the Oregon Health & Science University.
Shapiro’s team at the University of Utah published research last year in the journal Science that revealed results from the first large-scale sequencing of the pigeon genome. That collection of more than 100 billion DNA bases from 40 pigeons, provided the basis for the new work.
Geneticists like Fondon have turned to dog breeds in the past to understand the molecular basis of phenotype changes because dog breeds are so varied. Fondon said scientists hoping to understand more about how characteristics vary can find even greater statistical power and diversity in studying domestic pigeons.
Fondon’s laboratory worked in parallel with researchers at Utah to find that coding and regulatory variations in the interactions among the genes Tyrp1, Sox10 and Slc45a2 control multiple color phenotypes, or appearances, in pigeons. For example, researchers found that the ash-red mutation in Tyrp1,