Facial hair, lamb’s wool, fish scales… Elk’s horns, bird feathers, and lizard tails

I am a poet and I didn’t even know it! That’s a random list… but believe it or not, they do all have something in common. They are all made of the structural protein known as keratin! A lot of living things; especially mammals like lions, tigers, and bears (Oh my! Wizard of Oz reference); use keratin. Almost all of the spooky things that Dorothy was afraid of in the dark and creepy forest have keratin to thank for their outward appearance. Lions, tigers, and bears may be fierce animals on their own (unless you are the cowardly lion of course) but even they need the protection that these structural proteins offer. Even Dorothy’s long locks of hair would not exist if not for keratins.

All keratins start out the same way, as RNA code. RNA is created in all living things and, in the case of creating keratins, is copied from a specific strand of DNA. Let’s say my body wants to create keratins that will make up my facial hair. There is a specific strand of DNA that has special coding for the creation of hair. This strand of DNA gets copied into a new strand of RNA. Once my cells have an RNA strand, they thread it through a tiny organelle known as a “ribosome.” This ribosome then reads the RNA code and combines various amino acids once it has interpreted the code. This is basically how all the body parts of living things are formed. Once my cells have just the right combination of amino acids, proteins like keratins are formed. Multiple keratins combine in such a way to form my facial hair.

The ice cream shop: That is some pretty heavy information to comprehend if you are not familiar with basic biology. Let’s use an analogy to try and remember this process of creating proteins like keratins.

You want a very special ice cream cone from your favorite ice cream shop. But you don’t want just any old vanilla or chocolate ice cream cone. You want the “Lizard Tail Delight” which is a very complicated recipe. Unfortunately you are stuck at home so you give your mom the instructions to go get the ice cream for you. Your mother carries your specific instructions to the ice cream shop owner. The ice cream shop owner reads the recipe given to him by your mom and then begins scooping hundreds of ice cream balls, one on top of the other, until he has finally created the “Lizard Tail Delight.”

person holding ice cream with cone
Photo by Jean Balzan on Pexels.com

In the story above, you represented the DNA and the recipe you gave your mom was the specific code which is necessary for creating proteins. Your mom represented the RNA which delivered the code to the ribosome, which in this case was the ice cream shop owner. The ice cream balls signified the long (usually even more than hundreds of amino acids long) chain of amino acids used to form proteins like keratin. Let’s hope all of that ice cream made it home to you in one piece! Oh and that reminds me, our bodies are incomprehensibly accurate at creating these ridiculously long chains of amino acids with just a fraction of a percent average rate of error.

There are two main types of keratins that make up most of the structural proteins found in living things. These two types are known as alpha and beta keratins. Alpha keratins are fibrous, helical shaped proteins found primarily in the skin, hair and the wool of mammals. Beta keratins are made of multiple parallel sheets of proteins and are less fibrous and helical in structure. Beta keratins are found in the scales of reptiles, the feathers of birds, and even the shells of tortoises. Both alpha and beta keratins form from within the cells of the outer epithelial (or skin) tissues on all living things.

If keratins are basically made of the same materials, how can human skin look so different from fish scales?! The answer lies within the physical structure of these keratins and how chemistry played a role in forming their unique structures. It blows my mind to think that the horns of an elk and the feathers of an eagle are made from the same versatile protein. It all depends upon how those proteins are stacked and bonded together, how much water is contained within the bonds, and the type of tissue (ie human skin, lizard skin, etc) that produced the proteins.

Over time, our hair can lose keratin due to excessive exposure to heat and chemicals in the environment. These gaps within our keratin causes our hair to look frizzy and damaged. Don’t fret over the loss of your precious keratin! Beauty salons are implementing new technology and keratin treatments to repair damaged or lost keratin. These treatments add actual keratin mixed with other chemicals to lock the keratin in place into your hair. Then, with just the right amount of heat to seal the keratin in place, your hair is repaired. Just in time for date night!

blue salon neon signage
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Next time you go to the zoo, remember that you can relate to the lions, the tigers, the bears, the birds, the turtles, the komodo dragons, and the penguins just to name a few. We all rely on a very versatile protein known as keratin to give us added protection and structure.


If you read this whole blog post, you are my hero! Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave me a comment and feedback below. Also, let me know if there is any particular science topic you would like me to look at “through green tinted glasses” and I will write about it.

Science word of the week: “Amino Acid”–A simple organic compound used to create proteins. Our cells link multiple amino acids together in a process known as ‘protein synthesis’ to create proteins such as keratin.

Work Cited: https://www.britannica.com/science/keratin



2 thoughts on “Facial hair, lamb’s wool, fish scales… Elk’s horns, bird feathers, and lizard tails

  1. Sounds great! I loved how you explained how versatile keratin is. My students really have a hard time understanding how organisms can be so different if the same materials and processes are used to make them.


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