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Mapping stem cell activities in the feather follicle


It is important to know how different organs ‘manage’ their stem cells. Both hair and feather follicles show robust regenerative powers that episodically renew the epithelial organ. However, the evolution of feathers (from reptiles to birds) and hairs (from reptiles to mammals) are independent events and their follicular structures result from convergent evolution. Because feathers do not have the anatomical equivalent of a hair follicle bulge, we are interested in determining where their stem cells are localized. By applying long-term label retention1, transplantation2 and DiI tracing to map stem cell activities, here we show that feather follicles contain slow-cycling long-term label-retaining cells (LRCs), transient amplifying cells and differentiating keratinocytes. Each population, located in anatomically distinct regions, undergoes dynamic homeostasis during the feather cycle. In the growing follicle, LRCs are enriched in a ‘collar bulge’ niche. In the moulting follicle, LRCs shift to populate a papillar ectoderm niche near the dermal papilla. On transplantation, LRCs show multipotentiality. In a three-dimensional view, LRCs are configured as a ring that is horizontally placed in radially symmetric feathers but tilted in bilaterally symmetric feathers. The changing topology of stem cell activities may contribute to the construction of complex feather forms.

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Figure 1: Identification of feather epithelial stem cells.
Figure 2: Stem cells during moulting.
Figure 3: Configurations of LRC cells in different types of feather.


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We thank G. Cotsarelis and R. Prum for helpful input; and all members of the Chuong laboratory for discussion. This work is supported by grants from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (to C.M.C) and from the National Cancer Institute (to R.B.W.).

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Cheng-Ming Chuong.

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Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1

Follicle structure and cell labelling. (JPG 316 kb)

Supplementary Figure 2

Transplantation to test multipotentiality. (JPG 329 kb)

Supplementary Figure 3

Pulse labelling and DiI tracing to follow cell lineages. (JPG 581 kb)

Supplementary Figure 4.

LRC and TA cells in molting stage follicles. (JPG 330 kb)

Supplementary Figure Legends

Full text to accompany the above Supplementary Figures. (DOC 27 kb)

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Yue, Z., Jiang, TX., Widelitz, R. et al. Mapping stem cell activities in the feather follicle. Nature 438, 1026–1029 (2005).

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