• Carlos Lois
    Credit: Caltech

Speech and Transgenic Songbirds

New genomic tools will enable the study of higher cognitive functions in songbirds

Research Professor Carlos Lois is one of 10 recipients of an EDGE (Enabling Discovery through Genomic Tools) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The newly formed NSF EDGE program will enable biologists to develop enhanced genomic tools that could one day reveal insights into why organisms are structured the way they are and function the way they do.

The Lois laboratory is particularly interested in developing new methods of producing transgenic zebra finches, genetically modified songbirds that are commonly studied to provide understanding of vocal learning and communication. The anatomical organization of these birds' brains shows similarities to the organization of vocal control centers in humans, and the manner by which they learn song is similar to how humans learn to speak.

"Unfortunately, many of the most interesting questions related to higher cognitive functions cannot be studied in any of the model organisms—flies, mice, fish, and worms—because their behavioral repertoires are quite limited," says Lois. "For example, none of these model organisms are useful for investigating the genetic basis of language and speech. Now, for the first time, transgenic songbirds are allowing us and others to generate animal models of human diseases affecting higher cognitive functions and communication disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, and speech disorders."

The work will be a collaboration between Caltech, The Rockefeller University, and Oregon Health & Science University.

Written by Lori Dajose