Sunday, December 18, 2011

songbird genome reveals new insights...,


Video - Learning and reproducing song has direct effects on finch genome.

WUSTL | 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.

Now, an international team of scientists (listed below), led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has decoded the genome of a songbird — the Australian zebra finch — to reveal intriguing clues about the genetic basis and evolution of vocal learning.

An analysis of the genome, published April 1 in the journal Nature, suggests a large part of the bird’s DNA is actively engaged by hearing and singing songs. The simple melodies last only a few seconds but are rooted in tremendous genetic complexity, the scientists report.

The new work provides insights to help scientists understand how humans learn language. It 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, the researchers say.

“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 Richard K. Wilson, PhD, director of Washington University’s Genome Center. “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.”

Among songbirds, singing is almost exclusively a male activity: Males serenade females with love songs to attract a mate. As babies, they learn to sing by listening to their fathers. At first, a young bird “babbles,” but with practice learns to closely imitate his father’s song. Once the bird has mastered the family song, he will sing it for the rest of his life and pass it on to the next generation.

Aside from humans and songbirds, other animals known to communicate by vocal learning include bats, whales, elephants, hummingbirds and parrots. 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.