Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Songbird's Genome

The Australian zebra finch, Taeniopygia guttata, weighs less than half an ounce, mates for life and, unlike most vocalizing animals, learns its songs from its elders. A new analysis of its genome, the first of a songbird, is providing clues to the mechanisms and evolution of vocal communication. Nearly all animals make sounds instinctively, but baby songbirds learn to sing in virtually the same way human infants learn to speak: by imitating a parent.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Uppsala University, UCLA and more than 20 other institutions collaborated on the analysis, which appears here in the journal Nature.

“Now we can look deep into the genome, not just at the genes involved in vocal learning, but at the complex ways in which they are regulated,” says senior author Dr. Richard Wilson, The Genome Center’s Director. “There are layers and layers of complexity that we’re just beginning to see. This information provides clues to how vocal learning occurs at the most basic molecular level in birds and in people.”

Because zebra finches learn to sing in a predictable way and many of their genes are conserved in humans, they are an important model for understanding vocal learning in humans. Many of the same genes involved in the bird’s ability to learn songs are also involved in human language learning. The work also sets the stage for future studies that could help identify the genetic and molecular origins of speech disorders, such as those related to autism, stroke, stuttering and Parkinson’s disease.