The zebra finch is a fascinating bird that can learn songs, making it a fantastic model to study learning, memory, neuroscience and the evolution of the brain. Research in this area will have an impact on important human issues such as how we learn and communicate, how we form long and short term memories, amnesia and diseases such as Alzheimer's. Scientists in 24 organisations in six countries have collaborated to produce and translate the genome of the zebra finch, and have published their findings in the journal Nature. The Institute for Animal Health's Bioinformatics Group contributed to the understanding of the zebra finch genome by writing novel software that allowed scientists throughout the world to understand how this fascinating bird learns songs.
Other than humans, the zebra finch is one of only a few species that can learn vocalisations. Research has shown that bird song has important similarities to human speech. The young male zebra finch listens to the song of an adult tutor, and then develops his own song based on what he has heard.
The zebra finch genome is only the second bird genome to be sequenced and published, the first one being the chicken genome2. Interestingly, the chicken is not a vocal learner, and so comparing the two genomes at the DNA level allowed researchers to identify areas directly involved in vocal learning. Additionally, the zebra finch genome will provide us with more information on avian genomics and evolution, leading to an increased understanding of the chicken genome.
To understand a genome, we need more than just the DNA sequence. Many scientists must come together to define which parts of the DNA are functional, and what they code for. In addition, many "gene expression" experiments are carried out, which tell us which genes are switched on/off in different scenarios. In the case of the zebra finch, it has been shown many times that listening to songs turns on some genes, and others off, in certain areas of the brain. These gene expression studies produce large amounts of information and require specialist software to analyse.
Early in 2009, the IAH Bioinformatics Group wrote and published3 a piece of software called CORNA , which stands for "Co-regulation by RNA". CORNA allows scientists to process large amounts of data, and looks for patterns within that data that are "enriched"; that is present more than one would expect by chance. Thus large amounts of data can be processed to give an insight into the function of genes that are switched on or off during biological experiments.
The zebra finch genome consortium required such software to help analyse their data, and in 2009 CORNA was deployed as a web-based tool on the IAH Bioinformatics website, where it was accessed many hundreds of times by scientists throughout Europe and the USA, directly contributing to the understanding of the zebra finch genome.
|1. Warren W C (2010) et al. The genome of the zebra finch, a songbird. Nature 463 (7281), 1st April 2010.|
|2. International Chicken Genome Sequencing Consortium (2004) Sequence and comparative analysis of the chicken genome provide unique perspectives on vertebrate evolution. Nature 432(7018):695-716.|
|3. Wu X, Watson M (2009) CORNA: testing gene lists for regulation by microRNAs. Bioinformatics. 25(6):832-833.|
For further information contact Dr Dave Cavanagh at the Institute for Animal Health's press office.