WEDNESDAY, April 7, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. scientists say they've learned the long-sought-after secret of how animals make spots, stripes and other coloring patterns.
They investigated how a species of fruit fly (Drosophila guttifera) ornaments itself with a complex pattern of 16 wing spots. Researchers found that morphogen -- a protein present in embryonic tissue and encoded by a gene called Wingless -- plays a critical role in the process.
Morphogen diffuses through tissue late in wing development and becomes active at physical landmarks such as the intersections of veins and cross veins on the wing. It triggers cells in those areas to produce pigment.
"The Wingless molecule is deployed in this species at specific points in time and in specific places -- the places where the spots are going to be," study senior author Sean Carroll, a molecular biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a news release.
With this knowledge, Carroll and his team found they could create "custom flies" -- ones with stripes instead of spots on the wings. They changed the decoration simply by inserting the Wingless gene into different parts of the fruit fly genome.
While this research involved fruit flies, the principles likely apply to many animals, from butterflies to boa constrictors, researchers said.
"This is animal color patterning, how they are generated, and how they evolved," Carroll said.
The study appears today in the journal Nature.
The PBS station WGBH has more information about animal "body building" in genes and animal body plans.