Parallel genetic origin of foot feathering in birds
Understanding the genetic basis of similar phenotypes shared between lineages is a long-lasting research interest. Even though animal evolution offers many examples of parallelism, for many phenotypes little is known about the underlying genes and mutations. We here use a combination of whole-genome sequencing, expression analyses, and comparative genomics to study the parallel genetic origin of ptilopody (Pti) in chicken. Ptilopody (or foot feathering) is a polygenic trait that can be observed in domesticated and wild avian species and is characterized by the partial or complete development of feathers on the ankle and feet. In domesticated birds, ptilopody is easily selected to fixation, though extensive variation in the type and level of feather development is often observed. By means of a genome-wide association analysis, we identified two genomic regions associated with ptilopody. At one of the loci, we identified a 17 kb deletion affecting PITX1 expression, a gene known to encode a transcription regulator of hindlimb identity and development. Similarly to pigeon, at the second loci we observed ectopic expression of TBX5, a gene involved in forelimb identity and a key determinant of foot feather development. We also observed that the trait evolved only once as foot feathered birds share the same haplotype upstream TBX5. Our findings indicate that in chicken and pigeon ptilopody is determined by the same set of genes that affect similar molecular pathways. Our study confirms that ptilopody has evolved through parallel evolution in chicken and pigeon.