Clever songbird's genome may hold key to evolution of learning


Clever songbird's genome may hold key to evolution of learning

Press release

An international research team led by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and Wageningen University has just published its findings in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

“People in our field have been waiting for this for decades,” explain NIOO-researchers Kees van Oers and Veronika Laine.

Now that it's been fully revealed, the reference genome of their favourite model species offers ecologists and evolutionary biologists “a powerful toolbox that they should all know about.”

Changing planet

Coming from a single Dutch bird, the genetic code of the assembled reference genome will help to reveal the genetic basis of phenotypic evolution. This is essential for understanding how wild species adapt to our changing planet.

In addition to looking at the genome, the research team have determined the so-called 'methylome'. Specific DNA sequences in the genome can be ‘methylated’: methyl groups are added to them, modifying how the genes function.

Methylation belongs to the field of epigenetics: the fast-growing study of what you can inherit not in but ‘on’ your genes.

Clever songbird

After sequencing the complete genomes of a further 29 great tit individuals from different parts of Europe, the research team have identified regions in the great tit's genome that were under strong positive selection during the bird's recent evolution.

These regions appear to be overrepresented for genes related to learning and cognition. “The great tit has evolved to be smart,” says Van Oers. “Very smart.”

It’s definitely not your average bird, as it belongs to the top 3% smartest birds when it comes to learning new behaviour. That makes it a perfect candidate for research into the evolution of learning, memory and cognitive processes.

Crucial correlation

What that research has so far revealed are so-called conserved patterns of methylation in those same regions, present not only in birds but also in humans and other mammals.

It’s evidence of a correlation between epigenetic processes such as methylation and the rate of molecular evolution: “the more methylation, the more evolution.”

And so the great tit has once more proved that its role as a model species in a variety of biological research fields for over 60 years is by no means coincidental!

With more than 300 staff and students, the NIOO is one of the largest research institutes of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). It specialises in terrestrial and aquatic ecology. As of 2011, it is located in an innovative and sustainable research building in Wageningen.

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Paper: Evolutionary signals of selection on cognition from the great tit genome and methylome. Veronika N. Laine, Toni I. Gossmann, Kyle M. Schachtschneider, Colin J. Garroway, Ole Madsen, Koen J.F. Verhoeven, Victor de Jager, Hendrik-Jan Megens, Wesley C. Warren, Patrick Minx, Richard P.M.A. Crooijmans, Pádraic Corcoran, The Great Tit Hapmap Consortium, Ben C. Sheldon, Jon Slate, Kai Zeng, Kees van Oers, Marcel E. Visser & Martien A.M. Groenen. Nature Communications, 25 January 2016 online: