Claudio Mello, Ph.D., a professor of behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine, has received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation over three years in a collaborative effort with colleagues from the California Institute of Technology and Rockefeller University. The award will expand efforts to study the genetic makeup of zebra finches, a small bird that bears a striking resemblance to people in one important respect: like us, the zebra finch is a vocal learner.
The work demonstrates the importance of support for basic science in ultimately advancing human health. Mello shared his thoughts about the role of birds in understanding human biology and his growing appreciation for the natural world.
What’s so important about birds?
Birds help us to understand neuroscience and genetics. Their importance in evolutionary biology goes all the way back to Charles Darwin, who was struck by the differences between different populations of finches that evolved independently on the Galapagos islands off the coast of South America. Today, more bird species have had their genomes sequenced than any other vertebrate group. In fact, my lab was part of a series of studies published in the journal Science in 2014 that mapped the genomes of representative species from most existing bird orders.
What do birds have to do with speech and language?
Your ability to hear and imitate a sound is the basis for vocal communication in humans. Think about how language evolves in babies, who start by babbling and then develop words later as they learn and imitate people around them. That’s why babies who are born deaf can’t speak. It turns out that songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds all share this same characteristic with people. No other animal model that we can study in a lab, from mice to non-human primates, absorbs language in this way. We can learn a lot about our own brain circuits by studying birds.
How does this new award from the NSF help your work?
Birdsong learning is a good proxy for understanding the genetic basis of human speech and language development. However, it’s really difficult to conduct gene manipulation on birds to study how specific genes affect vocalizations. The new research will enable my lab, along with co-investigators at Rockefeller University in New York and the California Institute of Technology, to scale up our efforts to generate transgenic zebra finches. Combined with CRISPR gene-editing technology, this line of work will expand the ability of scientists around the world to conduct basic research in a species that shares similar neuro-circuitry with people, at least in respect to vocal communication and speech learning.
How will this research improve human health?
I can’t predict where all of this basic science research will lead, but I can tell you we’re dealing with a lot of the same circuits that are in human brains. This new project will greatly facilitate the study of how genes affect vocal learning circuits, and possibly also speech and language. While it is hard to predict exact outcomes, birdsong research has a history of opening new doors in the neurosciences. For example, work led by Dr. Fernando Nottebohm at Rockefeller University in the 1970s provided the first clear evidence of the distinction between male and female brains. Through several studies involving canaries, he also was able to demonstrate it was possible for the brain to form new neurons in adulthood. This finding opened up a new area of research in mammals, including a better understanding of neurogenesis in people. Most people are not even aware that all these doors were opened by the question, “Why do birds sing?”
Are you a birder yourself?
I wouldn’t say that, but I have become more fascinated by the natural history of birds. Recently, I was in Brazil helping to record the high-pitch song of one hummingbird species in a tropic rainforest on the Atlantic coast. This was highly interesting as the bird seems to sing well above its hearing range, which brings all kinds of questions about hearing capabilities. It was also amazing to be doing this work in an area with more plant species per hectare than the Amazon rain forest, yet 80 percent of it has been destroyed through deforestation. The loss of habitat is concerning because it’s not just about conserving the forest, we’re losing support for the bird species that carry information that could be valuable to help us understand who we are.