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By tweaking a particular gene, scientists have found a way to permanently transform the scales on a chicken’s feet into feathers. The final results present new insight into the bird’s evolutionary origins from dinosaurs.

“Like birds, it is clear right now that several dinosaurs had been partially covered with feathers as effectively as scales,” mentioned Michel Milinkovitch, a professor in the Division of Genetics and Evolution at the University of Geneva and co-author of the new study. “In birds, it is related. So, by altering this gene, we can in fact expand or reduce the proportion of the physique that is covered by feathers or scales based on when this gene is specifically expressed.”

To carry out this genetic switcheroo, scientists in Switzerland targeted the sonic hedgehog gene (Shh), which controls a signaling pathway that determines the improvement of particular qualities when at the embryonic level. This incorporates the brain and spinal cord limbs and skin appendages, like scales and feathers, according to the study, published Could 17 in the journal Science Advances. (And, yes, Shh is named soon after the titular character of the well-known video game.)

In the lab, scientists made use of a method identified as “egg candling,” which includes utilizing a light supply to illuminate the blood vessels inside an egg. This enabled them to recognize a appropriate vessel to straight inject the creating embryo with a molecule that activates the Shh pathway. For the study, they made use of broiler chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus), which are raised for industrial meat production, according to a statement.

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“We carried out the injection on day 11, which is the precise time when scales usually arise on the embryo,” lead author Rory Cooper, a postdoctoral fellow in artificial and organic evolution at the University of Geneva, told Reside Science. “If we carry out the injection even 1 day also late, the embryo has currently begun creating scales.”

Soon after the eggs hatched, the scientists noticed the formation of downy juvenile feathers on the chicks’ feet. These supersoft feathers had been comparable to the feathers covering the rest of their bodies, according to the statement.

“The impact is genuinely clear when they hatch,” Cooper mentioned. “And the transform lasts. When the chickens create the feathers, they never go back to getting scales on the targeted region.”

The researchers had been shocked at how uncomplicated it was to shape-shift the chickens’ feet and mentioned it presents the group a new understanding of how these animals evolved.

“Feathers are a function of transform,” Milinkovitch told Reside Science. “In dinosaurs, feathers could have been made use of to regulate the animal’s internal temperature or as a colorful show. Flight came later. By altering the expression of 1 gene, we had been capable to produce a cascade of developmental effects that triggered feather development, supplying new insights into the evolution of these animals.”

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