Language and Vocal Learning

Project Overview

Although nothing is more central to our identity as human beings than behavior, we still don’t know how the billions of nucleotides in our genome have evolved to give us complex thoughts or the ability to communicate those thoughts through speech. The component of speech that gives us a window into the genetic basis of behavior is vocal learning, which is the ability to reproduce complex vocalizations. Although speech itself is uniquely human, vocal learning is an example of convergent evolution, having evolved independently in multiple species, including songbirds/parrots, hummingbirds, bats, elephants, and also in humans relative to chimpanzees. This allows the Neurogenomics Laboratory to take a comparative genomic approach to understanding how vocal learning evolved: what features do the genes and the genomes of vocal learning species have in common relative to those without the ability?

We approach this problem using a wide set of techniques. The Neurogenomics Laboratory develops and adapts computational methods to identify regulatory elements in the genome associated with vocal learning behavior. We then use genomic techniques, such as high-throughput reporter assays and genome editing, to validate and refine the computational models. The results of these experiments will not only yield insights into how human speech evolved, but also provide a foundation for others who are aiming to connect genome sequence to organism traits using the wealth of new genomic data available.

• Pfenning, AR, Hara E, Whitney O, Rivas M, Roulhac P, Ganapathy G, Hartemink AJ, Jarvis ED. Convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song learning birds. (2014) Science. PMID: 25504733

Whitney O*, Pfenning AR*, Howard JT, Blatti CA, Lie F, Ward JM, Wang R, Kellis M, Mukherjee S, Sinha S, Hartemink AJ, West AE, Jarvis ED. Core and region enriched networks of behaviorally regulated genes and the singing genome. (2014) Science. PMID: 25504732

Zhang G, Li C, Li Q, Li B, et al. (Author #51/105). Comparative Genomics Reveal Insights into Avian Genome Evolution and Adaptation. (2014) Science. PMID: 25504712

•  Chen CC, Winkler CM, Pfenning AR, Jarvis ED. Molecular profiling of the developing avian telencephalon: regional timing and brain subdivision continuities. (2013) J Comp Neurol. PMID: 23818174