Songbird Genome Analysis Reveals New Insights
An international research consortium has identified more than 800 genes that appear to play a role in the male zebra finch's ability to learn elaborate songs from his father. The researchers also found evidence that song behavior engages complex gene regulatory networks within the brain of the songbird—networks that rely on parts of the genome once considered junk.
Fritz: Scientists at the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Human Genome Research Institute have recently mapped the genome of a songbird. This songbird, a Zebra finch, sings one complex song through its entire life and teaches that song to its male offspring. [ZEBRA FINCH SONG]
Fritz: The zebra finch is the first songbird—and the second bird, after the chicken—to have its genome sequenced. Director of the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Dr. Story Landis, explains why scientists chose the Zebra finch as a subject of study.
Landis: Songbirds are one of the few groups of animals other than humans that learn the sounds used for vocal communication during development. They're a particularly well studied species of songbirds. Like humans, they acquire the capacity for learned vocal communication based on auditory experience and vocal motor practice. In addition, they have highly developed brain regions that control vocal learning. So they provide a really wonderful model system for understanding neural and behavioral mechanisms of speech in people.
Fritz: By comparing the finch genome with the human genome, researchers hope to expand understanding of learned vocalization in humans. Dr. Landis and her colleagues say that this information may help researchers who are striving to develop new ways to diagnose and treat communication disorders, such as stuttering and autism.
Landis: One of the major systems that's involved in songbird learning is a dopaminergic system, a dopamine system, and that’s the same system that's actually disrupted in Parkinson's disease. So we have an opportunity to understand how dopamine interacts with behavior.
Fritz: Dopamine is a chemical messenger responsible for transmitting signals in the brain. Dr. Landis adds that the researchers also found evidence that song behavior engages complex gene regulatory networks within the brain of the songbird—networks that rely on parts of the genome once considered junk. For more on this study, visit the websites www.ninds.nih.gov, and www.genome.gov. This is Craig Fritz, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
About This Audio Report
Reporter: Craig Fritz
Sound Bite: Dr. Story Landis
Topic: songbird genome, vocal behavior implications