THE GENE BENEATH MY WING…PATTERNS

By Lisa Potter, science writer, University of Utah Communications

Since domesticating the rock pigeon over 5,000 years ago, humans have bred more than 350 pigeon varieties with a fantastic variety of colors, patterns, shapes and sizes. The humble street birds aided Alexander the Great in battles and helped Charles Darwin explain natural and artificial selection in “On the Origin of Species.” Today, pigeon hobbyists drive most of the diversity within the species by competing for cash prizes and glory in breeding competitions all over the world.

By pinpointing the molecular underpinnings that drive pigeon diversity, biologists can better understand how evolution works in general. In a new study, a team led by doctoral candidate Anna Vickrey and professor Michael Shapiro of the University of Utah revealed that different versions of a single gene called NDP (Norrie Disease Protein) drive diverse feather patterns in pigeon wings. They are the first to reveal that NDP is associated with pigment variation, and that it has unexpected links to vision defects in humans and the success of pigeons living in cities. Learn more about the study in the infographic below, and the full press release here.

Inspired to conduct your own genetic research with pigeons? Try your hand at Pigeonetics: A different breed of puzzle game. The Shapiro Lab collaborated with the U’s Genetics Science Learning Center to design a game that teaches people about basic genetics using pigeons. The game was created with a K-12 audience in mind, but you can dig deep into genetics concepts with dozens of modules based on Shapiro’s real-world research in Pigeon Breeding: Genetics at Work. The effort was supported in part by a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.

To date:

  • 78 million people have visited the Pigeon Genetics web module.
  • 386K have played the game on the web.
  • 142K have downloaded the iOS app from the Apple App Store.