Towards a comprehensive model of feather regeneration



Understanding of the regeneration of feathers, despite a 140 year tradition of study, has remained substantially incomplete. Moreover, accumulated errors and mis-statements in the literature have confounded the intrinsic difficulties in describing feather regeneration. Lack of allusion to Rudall's (Rudall [1947] Biochem Biophys Acta 1:549–562) seminal X-ray diffraction study that revealed two distinct keratins, β- and α-, in a mature feather, is one of the several examples where lack of citation long inhibited progress in understanding. This article reviews and reevaluates the available literature and provides a synthetic, comprehensive, morphological model for the regeneration of a generalized, adult contour feather. Particular attention is paid to several features that have previously been largely ignored. Some of these, such as the β-keratogenic sheath and the α-keratogenic, supra-umbilical, pulp caps, are missing from mature, functional feathers sensu stricto because they are lost through preening, but these structures nevertheless play a critical role in development. A new developmental role for a tissue unique to feathers, the medullary pith of the rachis and barb rami, and especially its importance in the genesis of the superior umbilical region (SUR) that forms the transition from the spathe (rachis and vanes) to the calamus, is described. It is postulated that feathers form through an intricate interplay between cyto- and histodifferentiative processes, determined by patterning signals that emanate from the dermal core, and a suite of interacting biomechanical forces. Precisely regulated patterns of loss of intercellular adhesivity appear to be the most fundamental aspect of feather morphogenesis and regeneration: rather than a hierarchically branched structure, it appears more appropriate to conceive of feathers as a sheet of mature keratinocytes that is “full of holes. J. Morphol. 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.