Mice, the most common model organism in biology, are not suitable to address certain questions: How do birds learn to sing, and what parallels exist between the acquisition of birdsong and human speech in children? How do male and female brains differ? Of what use are new nerve cells in adult brains? During the past two decades the zebra finch has become the most widely used model organism for questions like these. With the genome sequence of the zebra finch now available, such questions will be answered faster and they can be better translated to human biology. This will lead to a better understanding of genetic diseases. One hereditary speech disease, for example, is caused by mutations in the FOXP2 gene. Zebra finches require that very same gene for song learning.
This fascinating parallel was discovered in the lab of Prof Constance Scharff at Freie Universität Berlin, who is also a senior author on the genome study appearing on April 1st in Nature. Scharff’s doctoral student, Iris Adam, initiated collaboration between bioinformaticians and genome experts at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics. Together they used new sequence technology for the first time on songbirds.
The researchers discovered that the songbird brain actively uses the information of ten thousand genes, more than half of the entire genome. They specifically compared how the activity of those ten thousand genes differs between young finches that are just learning song and old finches that have finished learning. Follow-up studies will identify genes that contribute to song learning, and eventually may also inform us how children learn to speak.