Iridescence is widespread in the living world, occurring in organisms as diverse as bacteria, plants, and animals. Yet, compared to pigment-based forms of coloration, we know surprisingly little about the developmental and molecular bases of the structural colors that give rise to iridescence. Birds display a rich diversity of iridescent structural colors that are produced in feathers by the arrangement of melanin-containing organelles called melanosomes into nanoscale configurations, but how these often unusually shaped melanosomes form, or how they are arranged into highly organized nanostructures, remains largely unknown. Here, we use functional genomics to explore the developmental basis of iridescent plumage using superb starlings (Lamprotornis superbus), which produce both iridescent blue and non-iridescent red feathers. Through morphological and chemical analyses, we confirm that hollow, flattened melanosomes in iridescent feathers are eumelanin-based, whereas melanosomes in non-iridescent feathers are solid and amorphous, suggesting that high pheomelanin content underlies red coloration. Intriguingly, the nanoscale arrangement of melanosomes within the barbules was surprisingly similar between feather types. After creating a new genome assembly, we use transcriptomics to show that non-iridescent feather development is associated with genes related to pigmentation, metabolism, and mitochondrial function, suggesting non-iridescent feathers are more energetically expensive to produce than iridescent feathers. However, iridescent feather development is associated with genes related to structural and cellular organization, suggesting that, while nanostructures themselves may passively assemble, barbules and melanosomes may require active organization to give them their shape. Together, our analyses suggest that iridescent feathers form through a combination of passive self-assembly and active processes.
J Hered . 2021 Apr 22;esab014. doi: 10.1093/jhered/esab014. Online ahead of print.