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USC scientists uncover secrets of feather formation

Los Angeles, Oct. 30, 2002 - Scientists from the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California have, for the first time, shown experimentally the steps in the origin and development of feathers, using the techniques of molecular biology. Their findings will have implications for the study of the morphogenesis of various epithelial organs-from hairs to lung tissue to mammary glands-and is already shedding light on the controversy over the evolution of dinosaur scales into avian feathers.

A paper describing this work, "The Morphogenesis of Feathers", authored by principal investigator and Keck School pathology professor Cheng-Ming Chuong and his colleagues, was selected for advance online publication in the journal Nature and will be available as of October 30, 2002.

"The feather is one of the best research models you can find for understanding the basic molecular pathways used by all epithelial cells," says Chuong. "Scientists agree that whether you're looking at a human mammary gland or a chicken feather, epithelial cells use the same underlying logic, the same grammar, to form an organ. But unlike a gland, a feather really lays everything right out there for you."

The question of what makes a feather a feather has become rather heated in the recent past, with the discovery in China in the 1990s of fossilized dinosaurs like the Sinorthosaurus (Chinese-bird-dinosaur), with branching skin appendages on its skin. "Some say these things are feathers, some say they're protofeathers, others say they're not feathers at all," Chuong explains. "Everybody wants to know which one is the real first feather."

And they want to know how it came to be, as well. Over the years, Chuong notes, paleontologists trying to trace the evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds have looked at the ways in which a reptilian scale might turn into an avian feather.

Most adult feathers have a backbone, or stem, called a rachis, o
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Contact: Jon Weiner
jonweine@usc.edu
323-442-2830
University of Southern California
30-Oct-2002


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