Cytochemical and Molecular Characteristics of the Process of Cornification During Feather Morphogenesis

Prog Histochem Cytochem. 2008;43(1):1-69. doi: 10.1016/j.proghi.2008.01.001. Epub 2008 Mar 14.


Feathers are the most complex epidermal derivatives among vertebrates. The present review deals with the origin of feathers from archosaurian reptiles, the cellular and molecular aspects of feather morphogenesis, and focus on the synthesis of keratins and associated proteins. Feathers consist of different proteins among which exists a specialized group of small proteins called beta-keratins. Genes encoding these proteins in the chick genome are distributed in different chromosomes, and most genes encode for feather keratins. The latter are here recognized as proteins associated with the keratins of intermediate filaments, and functionally correspond to keratin-associated proteins of hairs, nails and horns in mammals. These small proteins possess unique properties, including resistance and scarce elasticity, and were inherited and modified in feathers from ancestral proteins present in the scales of archosaurian progenitors of birds. The proteins share a common structural motif, the core box, which was present in the proteins of the reptilian ancestors of birds. The core box allows the formation of filaments with a different molecular mechanism of polymerization from that of alpha-keratins. Feathers evolved after the establishment of a special morphogenetic mechanism gave rise to barb ridges. During development, the epidermal layers of feathers fold to produce barb ridges that produce the ramified structure of feathers. Among barb ridge cells, those of barb and barbules initially accumulate small amounts of alpha-keratins that are rapidly replaced by a small protein indicated as "feather keratin". This 10 kDa protein becomes the predominant form of corneous material of feathers. The main characteristics of feather keratins, their gene organization and biosynthesis are similar to those of their reptilian ancestors. Feather keratins allow elongation of feather cells among supportive cells that later degenerate and leave the ramified microstructure of barbs. In downfeathers, barbs are initially independent and form plumulaceous feathers that rest inside a follicle. Stem cells remain in the follicle and are responsible for the regeneration of pennaceous feathers. New barb ridges are produced and they merge to produce a rachis and a flat vane. The modulation of the growth pattern of barb ridges and their fusion into a rachis give rise to a broad variety of feather types, including asymmetric feathers for flight. Feather morphogenesis suggests possible stages for feather evolution and diversification from hair-like outgrowths of the skin found in fossils of pro-avian archosaurians.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Feathers / anatomy & histology
  • Feathers / cytology
  • Feathers / growth & development*
  • Feathers / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Keratins / genetics
  • Keratins / metabolism
  • Morphogenesis*


  • Keratins