• Image courtesy Ying Guo and colleagues. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
While they're not yet weaving little flowers into their impressive plumage, these Huiyang bearded chickens are providing genetic clues.
Conor Gearin

New Scientist
6 Jun 2016 - 2:21 PM  UPDATED 6 Jun 2016 - 2:27 PM

Hipster chickens’ secret is out: now we know how they get their beards.

“The Huiyang bearded chicken is a famous local breed,” says Xiaoxiang Hu at the China Agricultural University in Beijing.

When his team searched for the genes that control development of beards in chickens they found that a mutation turns on the HoxB8 gene in the skin cells of a chicken’s chin. The gene makes them grow long feathers to form a handsome beard. They also develop mutton chops called “muffs” to go along with it.

Hox genes first became famous for their role in regulating spine and limb growth in animals from fish to the great apes.

If HoxB8 controls feathers on these chickens’ faces, it’s possible that Hox genes are responsible for more than just an animal’s basic body plan, says Cheng-Ming Chuong of the University of Southern California. 

Perhaps some control external body characteristics like skin and feathers, says Chuong, including the plumage of showy species like birds of paradise and peacocks.

It could also mean that those genes guide patterns of skin and hair in humans, too. “I think Hox genes are a good candidate,” he says. “Humans really are not that different from chickens.”

Previous studies showed that some Hox genes guide hair development in mice. “In understanding the mechanisms that build feathers, we’re gaining some insight into what builds hair,” says Marcus Davis at Kennesaw State University. “I would be surprised if we didn’t find some roles for Hox in hair.”

Journal reference: PLoS Genetics, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1006071

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