Newly Mapped Genome Sheds Light on the Origin of Pigeon Breeds
In 1855, four years before the publication of On the Origin of Species and nearly two decades after his return from the Beagle expedition, Charles Darwin set up a pigeon breeding loft in his home. Fascinated by the diversity present in the birds, and suspecting they might provide evidence for his evolutionary theory, he bred 120 birds himself and purchased the skins of more exotic breeds. He conducted a series of experiments to show how much variation could occur in a species in just a few generations; during the study he became convinced that all breeds of pigeon were descended from the wild rock dove (Columba livia).
A study published yesterday in Science confirmed Darwin’s suspicion after more than one hundred and fifty years. Scientists from the Universities of Utah, the University of Copenhagen, and the Beijing Genomics Institute announced that they had fully sequenced the genome of one pigeon breed, the Danish Tumbler, as well as partially sequencing those of 38 different domestic and feral breeds.
The study found that the birds studied were more closely related to each other and the Danish Tumbler than they were to the similar species Columba rupestris (the Eastern rock dove or hill pigeon). It also found that the two feral breeds studied, collected from two different locations in the United States, were closely related to domesticated birds, supporting the popular theory that they are descended from escaped homing pigeons rather than wild breeds.
Using the genetic information they collected and the distribution of the species studied they concluded that many of the most common breeds of pigeon are likely to have originated in the Middle East as racing birds.
Additionally, the team found that all of the pigeons with crests (tufts of upward-growing feathers on the top of the head and neck) had one gene in common called Ephrin Receptor B2 (EphB2) which was not found in the birds without crests. They confirmed this with an additional sample of 69 uncrested birds from 57 breeds and 61 crested birds from 22 breeds. By identifying EphB2 they showed that the crests were the result of a single mutation spread by breeders rather than something which evolved independently in more than one breed. The theory that head crests might be a simple trait can be traced back to the American geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan in 1911.
This represents a significant step in the study of bird genomes as there have previously been relatively few studies.
“Birds are a huge part of life on Earth, and we know surprisingly little about their genetics,” said principal author Michael Shapiro, a member of the Salt Lake City team, in a press release. “There are more than 10,000 species of birds, yet we know very little about what makes them so diverse genetically and developmentally.”
Prior to this experiment only four other species have had their genomes studied at length, namely the chicken, the turkey, the budgerigar and the zebra finch.
Shapiro believes that the study could encourage other researchers to use pigeons as models, and his team hope that they can use their results to study more complex traits in birds. “We’ve shown a way forward to find the genetic basis of traits — the molecular mechanisms controlling animal diversity in pigeons,” he said. “Using this approach, we expect to be able to do this for other traits in pigeons, and it can be applied to other birds and many other animals as well.”
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