Diverse feather shape evolution enabled by coupling anisotropic signalling modules with self-organizing branching programme
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms14139
Adaptation of feathered dinosaurs and Mesozoic birds to new ecological niches was potentiated by rapid diversification of feather vane shapes. The molecular mechanism driving this spectacular process remains unclear. Here, through morphology analysis, transcriptome profiling, functional perturbations and mathematical simulations, we find that mesenchyme-derived GDF10 and GREM1 are major controllers for the topologies of rachidial and barb generative zones (setting vane boundaries), respectively, by tuning the periodic-branching programme of epithelial progenitors. Their interactions with the anterior-posterior WNT gradient establish the bilateral-symmetric vane configuration. Additionally, combinatory effects of CYP26B1, CRABP1 and RALDH3 establish dynamic retinoic acid (RA) landscapes in feather mesenchyme, which modulate GREM1 expression and epithelial cell shapes. Incremental changes of RA gradient slopes establish a continuum of asymmetric flight feathers along the wing, while switch-like modulation of RA signalling confers distinct vane shapes between feather tracts. Therefore, the co-option of anisotropic signalling modules introduced new dimensions of feather shape diversification.