An insider's look at the feather, a marvel of bioengineering

By Ed Yong | December 15, 2009 7:00 pm

The feather is an extraordinary biological invention and the key to the success of modern birds. It has to be light and flexible to give birds fine control over their airborne movements, but tough and strong enough to withstand the massive forces generated by high-speed flight. It achieves this through a complicated internal structure that we are only just beginning to fully understand, with the aid of unlikely research assistants – fungi.

At a microscopic level, feathers are made of a protein called beta-keratin. The same protein also forms the beaks and claws of birds, and the scales and shells of reptiles. It’s close (but less rigid) relative, alpha-keratin, makes up the nails, claws and hairs of mammals. Zoom out, and we see that feathers have a central shaft called the rachis with two vanes on either side. Each vane is composed of barbs that branch off the rachis. Even thinner barbules branch off from the barbs, and are held together by small hooks that give the feather its shape.

What’s much less clear is how the keratin fibres and filaments are organised into the rachis, barbs and barbules. To work that out, scientists would typically slice the rachis in cross-sections and look at it under an electron microscope. But feathers don’t give up their secrets so easily. Their fibres are stuck together with a chemical glue that makes them virtually impossible to separate. Imagine gluing a bundle of matches together and cutting them cross-ways. You could see the fibres that make up the component matches, but if they were glued together tightly enough, you wouldn’t be able to tell where one match started and another began. So it is with feathers and their keratin.

Theagarten Lingham-Soliar from the University of Kwazulu-Natal solved the problem by recruiting fungi as research assistants. He used four species, which like to grow on keratin, to digest the complex molecules that glue individual filaments together. The process was very slow. Even after a year, the feathers seemed in pretty good shape and it was only after 18 months that they had broken down enough to be studied under the microscope.

The wait was worth it. For the first time, the microscope revealed how feathers are organised. For a start, they contain the thickest keratin fibres ever recorded, with a 6-micrometre diameter that’s ten times greater than their next thickest rivals. The long fibres make the rachis strong and stiff, and each is made up of even smaller ‘megafibrils’ and ‘fibrils’. Most of the keratin fibres are aligned along the shaft of the rachis but some are wrapped around them. These wraparound fibres prevent their long-ways comrades from buckling. Without them, the slender rachis might turn into a bulging barrel.

The keratin fibres were lined with small lumps or nodes that stick up from the main axis at regular intervals. Each node is capped with hooks or a ring, and those of neighbouring fibres are staggered. They act like the bricks of a wall, linking together to prevent cracks from spreading and resisting forces that would fracture the rachis. They also help to anchor the fibres into the glue that binds them together, much like steel rebars used in the construction of high-rise buildings.

But the most surprising feature of the fibres is that they’re almost identical to the structures of barbules, and very similar to the downy plumage of baby chicks. This has implications for the evolution of feathers. You might think that the central feature – the rachis – came first, followed by the structures that branch off it. But the fact that the rachis itself is made of barbule-like fibres suggests that the barbules came first. Only later did they unite to form a solid rachis.

Reference: Proc Roy Soc B doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.1980

More on feathers:


Comments (4)

  1. Arabian Stallion

    Thanks Ed!
    As an architect, I find the structure of the feather most fascinating. Obviously, given, their high exposure to wind, the rachis are subject to lots of lateral forces. The staggered arrangement of the ‘rings’ could help with that.
    In fact, there’s something a little similar in structural engineering of high rise buildings. More here:

  2. Arabian Stallion

    Also, it’d be interesting to see how the rachis are anchored into the body/skin of the bird.

  3. Steve Agostini

    Could the structual style of the feather be used on a space elevator cable. Nanotubes are strong enough, but only come in short lengths.

  4. @Arabian Stallion, some feathers are anchored into the bone, as for primaries of Great Horned Owl or the two most central rectrices of Toucans. I have no quantitative estimates about how much force is required to remove them, but I require pliers, and it causes me to wince.

    @Ed Yong, I think that the β-keratin is actually at the sub-microscopic level. What I do not like about this paper is the use of the word “filament:” is this meant to be confused with intermediate keratin filaments (smaller by orders of magnitude)?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Not Exactly Rocket Science

Dive into the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky world of science news with award-winning writer Ed Yong. No previous experience required.

See More

Collapse bottom bar