Friday, 26 April 2013

Feathers stem cells provide new insight into the morphogenesis process

A new study by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), led by Professor Chuong Cheng Ming, reveals how stem cells contribute to the unique and complex patterns bird feathers have. Surprisingly, the study has implications in the field of regenerative medicine, say the researchers.

To find why each bird comes with a different plumage the researchers used stem cell technology to first pinpoint the location of melanocyte (pigment) stem cells. The investigation led them to a population of melanocyte stem cells that lie under the skin at the base of the cylinder-shaped feather follicles.

"Feathers grow from the distal end  to the proximal end. When activated, such as following a bird's seasonal moult, these so-called melanocyte progenitors produce daughter cells that travel up the feather's shaft, colouring the feather barbs." said Chuong.

As time passes, the feathers change patterns because the stem cells responsible for colouring switch on and off during the feather formation process.

"In addition, the pigment stem cells are held in a three-dimensional ring-shaped configuration, which means that a new feather regenerates as an epithelial cylinder, As the feather develops, cells in specific regions die, allowing the feather to split open like the pages of a book." said Chuong.

To further understand feather pattern formation the research team studied the feathers of barred or spotted chicken breeds like the silver laced wyandottes breed. They later found that the same pigment stem cells are present throughout the feather barbs, regardless of their colour.

"As a chick grows into a rooster or hen, the feather patterns change remarkably depending on its age and sex. During regeneration, feathers remake themselves into different colours and shapes, but the feathers are all produced from the same follicles using the same stem cells." explained Chuong.

Discovering the mechanisms involved in feather regeneration is very important, as it provides new insight on a process known as morphogenesis, say Chuong.

"In this way, feathers have become a Rosetta Stone that will help reveal the fundamental principles of morphogenesis. What this research shows us is that while stem cells can become many things, it is the multiple factors interacting in their micro-environment that guides them to produce different organised tissue patterns," said Chuong.

2) Lin, S., Foley, J., Jiang, T., Yeh, C., Wu, P., Foley, A., Yen, C., Huang, Y., Cheng, H., Chen, C., Reeder, B., Jee, S., Widelitz, R., & Chuong, C. (2013). Topology of Feather Melanocyte Progenitor Niche Allows Complex Pigment Patterns to Emerge Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1230374

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