Signals Blog
Pea Hen Feather. Credit: Bill Gracey

The arrival of summer’s songbirds to much of Canada over the past month makes this a fitting time to talk about feathers. Coincidentally, a paper was released in Science in late April that revealed how stem cells function to create an incredible array of colours and patterns in bird feathers. While on the surface, this might appear to be curiosity-driven exercise, Chuong Cheng-Ming, who led the study, says there are far greater implications for regenerative medicine in learning how the stem cell environment produces organized tissues:

“…there is much to learn about the principles that can guide stem cells to form specific tissues and organs required for medical treatment. Our approach is to ask Nature how she does it – using the feather as a Rosetta stone to decipher these principles…”

When you look closely at feathers, such as those included here, and consider that the colours differ based on age and gender of the bird, and that each of these feathers is replaced at least once per year during moult, you begin to appreciate what a well-orchestrated micro-environment this must be.

Macaw. Credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts
Grey Peacock-Pheasant. Credit: Dave Rogers


Our regular feature, Right Turn, showcases the “lighter” side of stem cells and regenerative medicine. Every Friday, we will bring you cartoons, photos, videos and other content that may be just as thought provoking as the written submissions that you are used to finding here, but they definitely won’t be blogs.

As always, we welcome your feedback and we also welcome suitable submissions. Be creative! Use the right (!) side of your brain. Make us laugh! Let’s see if we can make this new direction a positive one for all of us. Send your submission to info(at)


Reference: Lin S.J., Foley J., Jiang T.X., Yeh C.Y., Wu P., Foley A., Yen C.M., Huang Y.C., Cheng H.C., Chen C.F. & Chuong C.M. Topology of Feather Melanocyte Progenitor Niche Allows Complex Pigment Patterns to Emerge, Science, DOI:

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Lisa Willemse

Lisa Willemse

Lisa is a science communicator with 15+ years' experience in the fields of regenerative medicine, child development and technology. She launched this blog (first as the Stem Cell Network Blog) in 2009, and served as co-editor until April 2015. She is currently the Senior Communications Advisor for the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine and has recently contributed to Motherboard, Science Borealis and the Genome Alberta and Canadian Blood Services blogs. Follow her on Twitter and Medium @WillemseLA.