duck, duck, quail?

In what would at first glance appear to be a completely useless experiment, researchers have created a duck-billed quail and a quail-billed duck. Jill Helms and Richard Schneider of the University of California at San Francisco successfully transplanted neural crest cells, which in birds give rise to beaks, from one bird embryo to another. When the embryos were examined days later, the quail was growing the wide, flat bill of a duck, and the duck was growing the little, pointy beak of a quail. Not only did the transplanted cells create the mismatched bills, but they also modified some of the surrounding cells, influencing their genes and rate of development. Neural crest cells develop into many of the bones of the face and skull in vertebrates. The researchers, who reported their findings in last week’s issue of Science, hope that by understanding how beaks develop, they can shed light on how deformities such as cleft palates and other facial birth defects occur in humans.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 1/28/2003.
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