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Keywords:

  • bird;
  • coloration;
  • melanocortin system;
  • pigmentation;
  • protein

Abstract

The genetic theory of morphological evolution postulates that form evolves largely by changing the expression proteins that are functionally conserved. It follows that understanding the function of proteins during different phases of development as well as the mechanisms by which the functions are modified is a prerequisite for understanding evolutionary change. Male pied flycatchers exhibit marked phenotypic variation in their breeding plumage. This variation has repeatedly been shown to have adaptive significance, but the molecular basis of this variation is not known. Here, we characterize the proteome of developing pied flycatcher feathers from differently pigmented males and also introduce a new method for examining the effect sizes of expression differences in protein interaction networks. Approximately 300 proteins were identified in the developing feathers of males. Gene products associated with cellular transport, cell metabolism and protein synthesis formed a large part of the developing feather proteome. Sixty-five proteins associated with the development of the epidermis and/or pigmentation were detected in the data. The examination of expression level differences of protein–protein interaction networks revealed an immunological signalling–related network to exhibit significantly higher expression in black compared to brown males. Additionally, indications of differences in energy balance and oxidative stress related characteristics were detected. Together, these results provide new insight into the molecular mechanisms and evolutionary significance of plumage colour variation.