The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 48: 181 - 191 (2004)

Vol 48, Issue 2-3

Special Issue: Skin Development

The biology of feather follicles

Open Access | Published: 1 April 2004

Mingke Yu, Zhicao Yue, Ping Wu, Da-Yu Wu, Julie-Ann Mayer, Marcus Medina, Randall B Widelitz, Ting-Xin Jiang and Cheng-Ming Chuong

Department of Pathology, Department of Cell and Neurobiology, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90033, USA.


The feather is a complex epidermal organ with hierarchical branches and represents a multi-layered topological transformation of keratinocyte sheets. Feathers are made in feather follicles. The basics of feather morphogenesis were previously described (Lucas and Stettenheim, 1972). Here we review new molecular and cellular data. After feather buds form (Jiang et al., this issue), they invaginate into the dermis to form feather follicles. Above the dermal papilla is the proliferating epidermal collar. Distal to it is the ramogenic zone where the epidermal cylinder starts to differentiate into barb ridges or rachidial ridge. These neoptile feathers tend to be downy and radially symmetrical. They are replaced by teleoptile feathers which tend to be bilateral symmetrical and more diverse in shapes. We have recently developed a "transgenic feather" protocol that allows molecular analyses: BMPs enhance the size of the rachis, Noggin increases branching, while anti- SHH causes webbed branches. Different feather types formed during evolution (Wu et al., this issue). Pigment patterns along the body axis or intra-feather add more colorful distinctions. These patterns help facilitate the analysis of melanocyte behavior. Feather follicles have to be connected with muscles and nerve fibers, so they can be integrated into the physiology of the whole organism. Feathers, similarly to hairs, have the extraordinary ability to go through molting cycles and regenerate. Some work has been done and feather follicles might serve as a model for stem cell research. Feather phenotypes can be modulated by sex hormones and can help elucidate mechanisms of sex hormone-dependent growth control. Thus, the developmental biology of feather follicles provides a multi-dimension research paradigm that links molecular activities and cellular behaviors to functional morphology at the organismal level.


branching, morphogenesis, skin, appendage, hair cycle, pigment pattern, sexual dimorphism, stem cell, regeneration

Full text in web format is not available for this article. Please download the PDF version.