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Pigeon genome opens a door to the past

Head of an Old German owl breed of domestic pigeon. This breed has a short beak and a crest of feathers on the head.
[Image courtesy of Sydney Stringham]

The striking differences in behavior, feathers and color patterns among various breeds of pigeons captured the attention of Sir Charles Darwin long ago. While working on his now-famous theory of evolution, Darwin repeatedly referred to pigeons as dramatic examples of diversity. In fact, today, there are more than 350 different breeds of pigeon on record.

Now, Michael Shapiro from the University of Utah and colleagues from around the world have sequenced the genome of the rock pigeon, or Columba livia, as well as the genomes of 36 other breeds of pigeon and two wild species. By comparing these genomes, the researchers discovered that most pigeon breeds began in the Middle East. They also suggest that escaped homers, or pigeons that were bred specifically for racing other pigeons, contributed a significant amount of their genes to wild pigeon populations.

The researchers then identified a particular gene, known as EphB2, which determines the kind of head crest, or crown of feathers, that each bird gets. These head crests are the easiest way to tell different pigeons apart, and they are often colorful and extravagant. Unlike most birds, the head crests of pigeons grow toward the top of the head instead of down their necks.

These newly sequenced genomes provide a model that researchers can use to study the many different traits—like head crests—of many different breeds of pigeon.