Scientists have been able to turn alligator scales into feathers, in an effort to understand how dinosaurs evolved into birds. The discovery itself is massive, considering that previous studies could not accurately pinpoint the transformative process that occurred millions of years ago.
In the study, which was published in the journal, Molecular Biology, and Evolution, researchers discovered the genes responsible for developing feathers in birds and then stimulated those same genes in alligator embryos. This, in turn, caused the scales to turn into feathers.
“In human evolution, the great achievement is the brain, in birds, it is the feathers,” said Cheng-Ming Chuong, lead author of the study and a professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
Scientists had discovered in the past that some dinosaurs evolved into birds but kept their scales, while other dinosaur species developed feathers. According to an article published in the Smithsonian Mag, scientists have so far discovered approximately thirty types of dinosaurs with feathers.
While birds have come a long way in setting themselves apart from their reptile brethren, alligators, on the other hand, have the most in common with dinosaurs, according to a study by the University of Florida.
Chuong states they were able to turn scales into feather by turning on and off-key molecular circuits at critical stages of scale growth and development. The team of scientists conducted both an RNA transcriptome and a DNA genomic analysis of developing chicks and alligators to observe possible similarities in scale or feather development.
The next step saw them place chicken feather genes within alligator eggs, activating and deactivating them in an effort to bring back a dormant evolutionary process that could turn scales into feathers.
“…scales have the capability to form feathers given the proper molecular signals,” said Chuong.
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