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 in the journal Nature.
Recognizing the unique relevance of songbirds to human biology and medicine, the National Human Genome Research Institute provided the main support for the sequencing effort.
Much like humans learn speech, songbirds learn their vocalizations – an ability rare in the animal kingdom. Zebra finches have been domesticated and are easy to rear, making them an accessible subject for scientific study, said David Clayton, a professor of neuroscience and cell and developmental biology at the University of Illinois and leader of the group that proposed and organized the genome sequencing effort.
“There is a real diversity of investigators doing research on the zebra finch,” said Clayton, who is also an affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois. “It is a unique animal model for things like sexual differentiation in the brain, sensitivity to the environment, local communication, speech, learning, steroid responses and social behavior.”
One striking outcome of the genome analysis is the discovery that song communication activates large and complex gene regulatory networks in the brain. A 2009 study conducted in Clayton’s lab showed that hundreds of genes are switched on or off in the zebra finch brain quickly as the bird learns the sound of a new song. Now, using the new genome sequence, the researchers observe that many of these song-responsive genes do not encode proteins but give rise to “non-coding” RNAs. Among the genes that are suppressed immediately after a zebra finch hears a new song, two-thirds are non-coding RNAs. Non-coding RNAs are believed to interact with protein-coding messenger RNAs (mRNAs) to regulate their stability, intracellular location and translation into protein.
“When we talk about the genes in a genome, many people still think exclusively in terms of protein-coding genes,” Clayton said. “We’re not the first to recognize that these non-coding RNAs are important. They’ve been studied a lot in the context of embryonic development, for example. But certainly this is a surprising observation that these things are also active in the moment-to-moment operation of the brain.”
As expected, the finch genome shares certain characteristics with that of the chicken, the only other bird genome sequenced to date. But a comparison of the two also reveals some striking differences. Some families of genes have expanded in the zebra finch, for example, and individual chromosome rearrangements have occurred since the two lineages diverged about 100 million years ago.
The zebra finch genome also is unusual in that it does not appear to fully balance the “dosage” of genes found on the sex chromosome, Z, between males and females. Males have two copies of the Z chromosome, while females carry one Z and one W chromosome. As a result, most genes found on the Z chromosome are expressed at higher levels in male finches than in females. This could explain some of the behavioral differences seen between male and female finches, the researchers suggest.
The analysis also found that some genes related to birdsong have undergone rapid evolution in the finch, suggesting that over evolutionary time these genes contributed to songbird survival and perhaps helped songbirds take over new ecological niches.
The new findings are relevant to an understanding of human vocal communication, Clayton said.
“There is a functional developmental parallel between the way a bird learns to sing and a human learns to speak,” he said. “The avian brain is quite different in superficial detail from the mammalian brain or the human brain, but some striking parallels have emerged.”
The organizing committee of the zebra finch genome sequencing project also included Research Professor of Genetics Wesley C. Warren of Washington University School of Medicine; Professor in Evolutionary Biology Hans Ellegren of Uppsala University; and Distinguished Professor of Integrative Biology and Physiology Arthur P. Arnold, of UCLA.
Diana Yates | University of Illinois
127 at one blow...
18.01.2017 | Stiftung Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig, Leibniz-Institut für Biodiversität der Tiere
How gut bacteria can make us ill
18.01.2017 | Helmholtz-Zentrum für Infektionsforschung
Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...
Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.
While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...
Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales
Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...
Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.
As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...
At TU Wien, an alternative for resource intensive formwork for the construction of concrete domes was developed. It is now used in a test dome for the Austrian Federal Railways Infrastructure (ÖBB Infrastruktur).
Concrete shells are efficient structures, but not very resource efficient. The formwork for the construction of concrete domes alone requires a high amount of...
10.01.2017 | Event News
09.01.2017 | Event News
05.01.2017 | Event News
18.01.2017 | Materials Sciences
18.01.2017 | Information Technology
18.01.2017 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation