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FASEB J. 1990 Sep;4(12):2969-77.

Metabolism of carotenoid pigments in birds.

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  • Department of Physiology and Neurobiology, University of Connecticut, Storrs 06268.


Carotenoid pigments are an important component in the plumage of birds. The metabolic precursors are dietary in origin but many species have the capacity to chemically modify and selectively deposit the pigments. The ensuing plumage patterns are important in communication and identification. The bright yellows, oranges, and reds are due mostly to xanthophylls; keto and hydroxy carotenes. Some are deposited unmodified (e.g., lutein) whereas others are modified chemically (canthaxanthin, astaxanthin). Early workers concentrated on demonstrating that feather carotenoids were derived from the diet and deposited selectively. Progress in defining and solving biological problems depended on advances in chemical and analytical techniques. Subsequent investigation showed that various plumage colormorphs, seasonal plumage changes or colors in common mutant, were due to relatively simple chemical changes in carotenoids but had profound biological consequences. Equally important was the realization that many of these processes were under genetic control. Validation came from feeding studies of flamingos and finches. Recent studies have employed the plumage carotenoids to test hypotheses of genetic divergence, to relate plumage color to environmental process, and to demonstrate the influence of synthetic changes on color. Understanding the processes has advanced with the introduction of high-resolution separation techniques and the ability to determine both conformation and absolute configuration. The next steps will be in the direction of understanding the enzymatic modification, transport, and tissue selectivity of feather carotenoids.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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