Teaching new birds old tweets can reveal more about human genetic traits

SAN FRANCISCO — A flurry of live tweets may hold the secret to understanding some of genetics’ most confounding mysteries.

Researchers at UCSF have found that if a songbird is exposed early to singing lessons from a foster father, they adopt the songs of that bird rather than their true parent. Tracking the talents of these finches can inform scientists how genetic traits are passed down in humans.

“You can override, and essentially eliminate the influence of genetics,” said Michael Brainard, a neuroscientist at UCSF’s Center for Integrative Neuroscience.

This new research shifts our understanding of the relationship between nature and nurture. While some studies involving twins who were separated at birth show a strong genetic basis for traits like sense of humor, reading comprehension, and even fashion sense infer that these traits are fixed, Brainard’s research suggests they might be strongly influenced by a person’s environment after all.

For example, the vocal cues babies pick up from their parents shape the way they will speak. Bengalese finches learn their songs in a similar way. Even from within the egg, young male finches are absorbing the sounds their fathers make, picking up nuances in tempo and even dialect.

While “other species of bird sing the exact same pattern over and over again, Bengalese finches sing a variety of songs,” said Brainard. This makes them particularly useful as a model for study.

Initially intrigued by the amount of variation in the birds’ musical repertoire, David Mets, a postdoctoral researcher in Brainard’s lab, decided to conduct an experiment to find out what drives that diversity of songs.

Mets separated two groups of finches, removing the eggs from their nest shortly after they were laid so that, even from within the egg, neither group would hear their father’s unique song.

He then exposed the first group to a series of computer-generated …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Health


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