Genome reveals olfactory communication in the zebra finch

In an article published earlier this week in Nature, researchers revealed the complete genome of the zebra finch and focused on the intricacies of their vocal communication. The zebra finch, the males of which are known to learn and repeat the same song generation after generation, show 800 active genes involved in vocalization. One group of researchers, however, found more hidden in the code.

Doron Lancet and Tsviya Olender of the Weizmann Institute’s Molecular Genetics Department co-authored the study, but they honed in on the olfactory system of the zebra finch. They discovered that, of the approximately 500 genes encoding smell receptors, 200 of the finch’s genes can potentially produce functional smell receptors.

Compared to the chicken genome, which is known to produce around 70 active proteins of the 500 genes, this shows a key role for smell, say the researchers. Given the importance of communication in the zebra finch, they suggest that smell is also playing an important part in communication.

Lancet and Olender compared the finch’s sequence to other bird species and found that 95% of the receptors in the finch appeared to belong to families unique to them. That is, the gene sequence for olfaction in one finch could be distinct from another finch, suggesting the smell receptors are just as individual as the song a particular bird produces. As Lancet described in a press release, “this finding suggests that smells may be involved in the unique communications among individuals within the species, on top of the messages they send through their songs.”

Read more on the implications for vocal communication in finches and humans at “From a Songbird, New Insights Into the Brain.”

Warren, W., et al. (2010). The genome of a songbird Nature, 464 (7289), 757-762 DOI: 10.1038/nature08819

Photo credit: marj k on Flickr

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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