Genetic Basis for Red Coloration in Birds Academic Article uri icon


  • The yellow and red feather pigmentation of many bird species [1] plays pivotal roles in social signaling and mate choice [2, 3]. To produce red pigments, birds ingest yellow carotenoids and endogenously convert them into red ketocarotenoids via an oxidation reaction catalyzed by a previously unknown ketolase [4-6]. We investigated the genetic basis for red coloration in birds using whole-genome sequencing of red siskins (Spinus cucullata), common canaries (Serinus canaria), and "red factor" canaries, which are the hybrid product of crossing red siskins with common canaries [7]. We identified two genomic regions introgressed from red siskins into red factor canaries that are required for red coloration. One of these regions contains a gene encoding a cytochrome P450 enzyme, CYP2J19. Transcriptome analysis demonstrates that CYP2J19 is significantly upregulated in the skin and liver of red factor canaries, strongly implicating CYP2J19 as the ketolase that mediates red coloration in birds. Interestingly, a second introgressed region required for red feathers resides within the epidermal differentiation complex, a cluster of genes involved in development of the integument. Lastly, we present evidence that CYP2J19 is involved in ketocarotenoid formation in the retina. The discovery of the carotenoid ketolase has important implications for understanding sensory function and signaling mediated by carotenoid pigmentation.

altmetric score

  • 340.848

author list (cited authors)

  • Lopes, R. J., Johnson, J. D., Toomey, M. B., Ferreira, M. S., Araujo, P. M., Melo-Ferreira, J., ... Carneiro, M.

citation count

  • 122

publication date

  • June 2016