Genetic study of pigeon color could yield clues to human skin diseases

Feb. 6, 2014 at 2:37 PM
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SALT LAKE CITY, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Mutations in key genes determine feather color in domestic pigeons, and the same genes control pigmentation of human skin, U.S. researchers say.

"Mutations in these genes can be responsible for skin diseases and conditions such as melanoma and albinism," University of Utah biologist Michael Shapiro said.

"In humans, mutations of these genes often are considered 'bad' because they can cause albinism or make cells more susceptible to UV (ultraviolet sunlight) damage and melanoma because the protective pigment is absent or low," study lead author Eric Domyan said. "In pigeons, mutations of these same genes cause different feather colors, and to pigeon hobbyists that is a very good thing."

Pigeon breeders have drawn on centuries-long experience to produce about 350 distinct pigeon breeds, many bred for different plumage color, but until this study the specific mutations that control color in pigeons were unknown, the researchers said.

"Across all pigeon breeds, mutations in three major genes explain a huge amount of color variation," Shapiro said.

Knowledge of how the genes work could yield potential targets for treatment of melanoma in humans, the researchers said, and an understanding of how mutations can lead to changes in skin color including albinism.

"Our work provides new insights about how mutations in these genes affect their functions and how the genes work together," Shapiro said. "Many traits in animals, including susceptibility to diseases such as cancer, are controlled by more than one gene. To understand how these genes work together to produce a trait, we often have to move beyond studies of humans."

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