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J Theor Biol. 2018 Jan 21;437:225-238. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2017.10.026. Epub 2017 Oct 31.

A chemotaxis model of feather primordia pattern formation during avian development.

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Department of Mathematics & Maxwell Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK; Dipartimento di Scienze Matematiche, Politecnico di Torino, Torino, Italy. Electronic address:
Roslin Institute & Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, UK.


The orderly formation of the avian feather array is a classic example of periodic pattern formation during embryonic development. Various mathematical models have been developed to describe this process, including Turing/activator-inhibitor type reaction-diffusion systems and chemotaxis/mechanical-based models based on cell movement and tissue interactions. In this paper we formulate a mathematical model founded on experimental findings, a set of interactions between the key cellular (dermal and epidermal cell populations) and molecular (fibroblast growth factor, FGF, and bone morphogenetic protein, BMP) players and a medially progressing priming wave that acts as the trigger to initiate patterning. Linear stability analysis is used to show that FGF-mediated chemotaxis of dermal cells is the crucial driver of pattern formation, while perturbations in the form of ubiquitous high BMP expression suppress patterning, consistent with experiments. Numerical simulations demonstrate the capacity of the model to pattern the skin in a spatial-temporal manner analogous to avian feather development. Further, experimental perturbations in the form of bead-displacement experiments are recapitulated and predictions are proposed in the form of blocking mesenchymal cell proliferation.


Chemotaxis and Turing models; Feather placodes; Morphogenesis; Pattern formation

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