Chatty finches

ed sequence variations similar to those found in humans. Together with Sebastian Haesler in her group and her colleagues Erich Jarvis and Kazuhiro Wada at Duke University they compared the expression of FoxP2 in a variety of bird brains. Among those were song-learners, such as zebra finches, canaries, chickadees, sparrows, hummingbirds, parakeets, and non-learners, e.g. pigeon and chicken. In addition, the scientists studied the gene in the closest relative of birds, the crocodile.

The first part of the study determined when and where the gene was expressed. Was FoxP2 expressed in brain regions that control singing? Was it expressed during learning of song, or during singing itself, and what happens when the learning is finished? In addition, the team analyzed the sequence of the zebra finch gene and compared it to the human sequence. They found that the FoxP2 gene from finches was extremely similar to the human version, but did not carry the human-specific sequence variation.

"Apparently, the human-specific version is not essential for songlearning in birds", says Constance Scharff, "or other variations that exist in the songbird version of the gene helped develop this ability". In collaboration with the Leipzig team of Max Planck scientists they are comparing FoxP2 sequences of song-learning birds with those of non-learners to see whether differences exist similar to those found between humans and chimps.

Certainly, the FoxP2 brain expression pattern the scientists now report is striking. The gene is expressed in bird brains in a manner astonishingly similar to the distribution in mammalian brains, including humans. What's more, expression in the Basal Ganglia, which help coordinate sequenced movements, peaks around the time of song learning, which in zebra finches occurs just once during development, but recurs seasonally in canaries. "We could show that FoxP2 levels increased in a basal ganglia region that is specialized for song learni

Contact: Dr. Constance Scharff

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