Darwin’s Pigeons Meet The Genomic Age
Like many naturalists of well-heeled social standing in his era, Charles Darwin was fond of keeping pigeons. While we now view these ashy sky-rats as something of an urban blight, there was then (and still is) an enormous group of breeding hobbyists worldwide. Bred for characteristics like frilled hoods and feathery spats (they really do look ridiculous), it’s these captive breeds that are believed to have escaped and become the feral urban populations of today.
Even before Darwin’s famous finches of Galapagos, he viewed pigeon breeding as Nature’s power of genetic selection put in the hands of man. All of this decades before the idea of a gene, much less the DNA that a gene is made of, was born in the minds of scientists.
More than a century and a half later, a team led by Utah’s Michael Shapiro has sequenced the genomes of 40 of these couture birds, to try and connect the age of Darwin with the age of the genome. It appears that all the world’s pigeons descend from one species, the rock pigeon of the Middle East. They flocked to man’s earliest farms in Mesopotamia, and were quickly domesticated for use as food, messengers and pets, a tradition which continues today. By digging down into the DNA base differences between various breeds, they hope to draw a map of pigeon evolution that would not only prove Darwin most definitely correct, but also make him quite happy.
Carl Zimmer has the whole, wonderful pigeon tale at The New York Times. Oh, and one last tidbit: That frilly hood up there? It’s caused by a gene called EphB2 being turned on in a place it’s not supposed to be. The more you know …
(pigeon photos via NY Times, by Richard Bailey)