The genes responsible for turning red birds red have been discovered by two independent research teams.
Color has a significant importance for us humans, but maybe it has an equal or greater meaning for the animal kingdom, especially the color red.
Often being used to attract the opposite sex for mating or detract a fierce rival, the color red in birds has now been genetically decoded by scientists.
Two different studies published in the Current Biology journal have identified a single gene responsible for the red birds’ coloring. This gene makes an enzyme that allows birds to convert yellow pigments into red ones. When the birds swallow the pigments, they later deposit these chemical compounds into beaks and feathers.
One of the research was done on a type of red canary bred to be exclusively red, and the other research studied the Finch, a kind of bird which sometimes has a mutated beak that’s not red.
Doctor Miguel Carneiro with the Universidade do Porto told the BBC News that birds cannot synthesize the red pigments by themselves, and they need to get them from their diet.
The enzyme responsible for turning these pigments into red has been hunted by scientists for decades. Doctor Carneiro wanted to study the red canaries because these birds might be the first genetically engineered species.
The species had originated in the 1920s when people started crossing yellow canaries with the South American siskin.
The zebra finch birds also obtain their pigments from the seeds or insect diet. In studying the finch birds, scientists investigated the pedigree of 95 yellow pigmented beak birds.
In both cases, scientists isolated a number of mutated genes and were able to independently detect the encoded enzyme called P450. Humans also have this enzyme and for us it doesn’t change the pigment of the color of our skin but in turn, helps us metabolize drugs.
The joint discovery yields important implications; many different species of red birds might use the same enzyme to produce those red pigments. It is also remarkable how one team made the discovery by looking at the gaining of a function mutation (the Canaries) and the other by looking at the loss of a function mutation (the yellow finch beaks).
Image source: Flickr