Linking the molecular evolution of avian beta (β) keratins to the evolution of feathers



Feathers of today's birds are constructed of beta (β)-keratins, structural proteins of the epidermis that are found solely in reptiles and birds. Discoveries of “feathered dinosaurs” continue to stimulate interest in the evolutionary origin of feathers, but few studies have attempted to link the molecular evolution of their major structural proteins (β-keratins) to the appearance of feathers in the fossil record. Using molecular dating methods, we show that before the appearance of Anchiornis (∼155 Million years ago (Ma)) the basal β-keratins of birds began diverging from their archosaurian ancestor ∼216 Ma. However, the subfamily of feather β-keratins, as found in living birds, did not begin diverging until ∼143 Ma. Thus, the pennaceous feathers on Anchiornis, while being constructed of avian β-keratins, most likely did not contain the feather β-keratins found in the feathers of modern birds. Our results demonstrate that the evolutionary origin of feathers does not coincide with the molecular evolution of the feather β-keratins found in modern birds. More likely, during the Late Jurassic, the epidermal structures that appeared on organisms in the lineage leading to birds, including early forms of feathers, were constructed of avian β-keratins other than those found in the feathers of modern birds. Recent biophysical studies of the β-keratins in feathers support the view that the appearance of the subfamily of feather β-keratins altered the biophysical nature of the feather establishing its role in powered flight. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 316:609–616, 2011. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.