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Sequencing of vertebrate genomes permits changes in distinct protein families, including gene gains and losses, to be ascribed to lineage-specific phenotypes. A prominent example of this is the large-scale duplication of beta-keratin genes in the ancestors of birds, which was crucial to the subsequent evolution of their beaks, claws, and feathers. Evidence suggests that the shell of Pseudomys nelsoni contains at least 16 beta-keratins proteins, but it is unknown whether this is a complete set and whether their corresponding genes are orthologous to avian beak, claw, or feather beta-keratin genes. To address these issues and to better understand the evolution of the turtle shell at a molecular level, we surveyed the diversity of beta-keratin genes from the genome assemblies of three turtles, Chrysemys picta, Pelodiscus sinensis, and Chelonia mydas, which together represent over 160 Myr of chelonian evolution. For these three turtles, we found 200 beta-keratins, which indicate that, as for birds, a large expansion of beta-keratin genes in turtles occurred concomitantly with the evolution of a unique phenotype, namely, their plastron and carapace. Phylogenetic reconstruction of beta-keratin gene evolution suggests that separate waves of gene duplication within a single genomic location gave rise to scales, claws, and feathers in birds, and independently the scutes of the shell in turtles.

Original publication




Journal article


Genome Biol Evol

Publication Date





923 - 933


Sauropsids, beta-keratins, gene duplication, turtle shell, Amino Acid Sequence, Animals, Biological Evolution, Birds, Epidermis, Evolution, Molecular, Feathers, Genomics, Phylogeny, Turtles, beta-Keratins