How the zebra got its stripes is a frequent topic in popular literature about the natural world.
For developmental biologists, however, it is much easier to study the biology of pattern formation in zebrafish, where the tools of experimental embryology and genetics have been proved to be very useful.
The elegant stripe patterns seen in adult zebrafish start to emerge in the juvenile fish when the cells responsible for the different colors organize themselves into intricate patterns.
Pigment cells called melanophores form the dark stripes, while xanthophores and iridophores form the regions between stripes.
How does this come about? Scientists tried many methods to answer this question in the last decades.
Now, David Parichy from the University of Washington and colleagues – including Dae Seok Eom – report an important step forward in our understanding of pattern formation.
Making use of recent advances in imaging technology and sophisticated genetic tools, they reveal that a previously unappreciated form of communication between cells plays a critical role in the formation of stripes in zebrafish.
Zebras will never enjoy the advantages of zebrafish when it comes to experimental genetics and embryology.
However, advances in DNA sequencing are furthering the reach of observational genetics, perhaps even to exotic mammals with diverse color patterns like civets and servals.
The question “How the zebra got its stripes” may not have the same answer as the question “How the zebrafish got its stripes”.
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