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Development 132 (7): 1499-1509

Quail-duck chimeras reveal spatiotemporal plasticity in molecular and histogenic programs of cranial feather development

B. Frank Eames, and Richard A. Schneider*

Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of California at San Francisco, 533 Parnassus Avenue, U-453, San Francisco, CA 94143-0514, USA

* Author for correspondence (e-mail: ras{at}

Accepted for publication 31 January 2005.

Abstract: The avian feather complex represents a vivid example of how a developmental module composed of highly integrated molecular and histogenic programs can become rapidly elaborated during the course of evolution. Mechanisms that facilitate this evolutionary diversification may involve the maintenance of plasticity in developmental processes that underlie feather morphogenesis. Feathers arise as discrete buds of mesenchyme and epithelium, which are two embryonic tissues that respectively form dermis and epidermis of the integument. Epithelial-mesenchymal signaling interactions generate feather buds that are neatly arrayed in space and time. The dermis provides spatiotemporal patterning information to the epidermis but precise cellular and molecular mechanisms for generating species-specific differences in feather pattern remain obscure. In the present study, we exploit the quail-duck chimeric system to test the extent to which the dermis regulates the expression of genes required for feather development. Quail and duck have distinct feather patterns and divergent growth rates, and we exchange pre-migratory neural crest cells destined to form the craniofacial dermis between them. We find that donor dermis induces host epidermis to form feather buds according to the spatial pattern and timetable of the donor species by altering the expression of members and targets of the Bone Morphogenetic Protein, Sonic Hedgehog and Delta/Notch pathways. Overall, we demonstrate that there is a great deal of spatiotemporal plasticity inherent in the molecular and histogenic programs of feather development, a property that may have played a generative and regulatory role throughout the evolution of birds.

Key Words: Feather morphogenesis • Quail-duck chimeras • Neural crest transplants • Epithelial-mesenchymal interactions • Modularity • Plasticity • Evolutionary developmental biology • bmp4bmp2shhdelta

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