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Regulatory switches for the downy-juvenile feather transition in birds

Date: 2024-06-05

The transition from natal downs for thermoregulation to juvenile feathers for flight is an environmental adaptation in avian evolution. As the regulatory switches for this transition are mostly unknown, we conducted gene regulatory analysis and functional perturbations in developing feathers. We elucidated four switches. First, extracellular matrix reorganization leads to peripheral pulp formation, mediating epithelial-mesenchymal interactions for branching morphogenesis. Second, α-SMA compartmentalizes dermal papilla stem cells for feather renewal cycling. Third, LEF1 works as a key hub of Wnt signaling to build rachis and convert radial downy to bilateral symmetry. Fourth, scale keratins strengthen feather sheath with SOX14 as the epigenetic regulator. These switches are largely conserved in chicken (precocial) and zebra finch (altricial), two distantly related species, suggesting their conservation in all birds. This study was a collaboration between Dr. Wen-Hsiung Li’s lab (Academia Sinica) and Dr. Cheng-Ming Chuong’s lab (University of South California). Published on May 16 in Nature Communications.