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 bird sounds. Roughly 30 times a day, the computer squeaked out a tune to be learned and repeated by the birds.
“They live in a regular birdcage with the additional feature that has this activated perch that will play back songs for them,” said Brainard.
Mets placed the other group in the care of a foster father who taught the chicks his own melody.
Using an algorithm to measure the tempo, Mets was able to figure out where these birds got their beats.
“It’s sort of an easy thing to measure,” he said. Whereas measuring the types and amounts of syllables in a song …read more
Source:: The Mercury News – Health