In 1855, in the garden of his country estate, Charles Darwin built a dovecote. He filled it with birds he bought in London from pigeon breeders. He favored the fanciest breeds — pouters, carriers, barbs, fantails, short-faced tumblers and many more.
Pigeon breeding, Darwin argued, was an analogy for what happened in the wild. Yet to later generations of biologists, pigeons were of little more interest than they are to, say, New Yorkers. Attention shifted to other species, like fruit flies and E. coli.
Now Michael D. Shapiro, a biologist at the University of Utah, is returning pigeons to the spotlight. The researchers have sequenced the DNA of 40 breeds, seeking to pinpoint the mutations that produced the pigeons different forms. Researchers have found that mutations in pigeon DNA can control a variety of traits, including the directions their feathers grow.