Positive selection in noncoding genomic regions of vocal learning birds is associated with genes implicated in vocal learning and speech functions in humans.
Vocal learning, the ability to imitate sounds from conspecifics and the environment, is a key component of human spoken language and learned song in three independently evolved avian groups-oscine songbirds, parrots, and hummingbirds. Humans and each of these three bird clades exhibit specialized behavioral, neuroanatomical, and brain gene expression convergence related to vocal learning, speech, and song. To understand the evolutionary basis of vocal learning gene specializations and convergence, we searched for and identified accelerated genomic regions (ARs), a marker of positive selection, specific to vocal learning birds. We found avian vocal learner-specific ARs, and they were enriched in noncoding regions near genes with known speech functions or brain gene expression specializations in humans and vocal learning birds, including FOXP2, NEUROD6, ZEB2, and MEF2C, and near genes with major neurodevelopmental functions, including NR2F1, NRP2, and BCL11B We also found enrichment near the SFARI class S genes associated with syndromic vocal communication forms of autism spectrum disorders. These findings reveal strong candidate noncoding regions near genes for the evolutionary adaptations that distinguish vocal learning species from their close vocal nonlearning relatives and provide further evidence of molecular convergence between birdsong and human spoken language.
Cahill, JA; Armstrong, J; Deran, A; Khoury, CJ; Paten, B; Haussler, D; Jarvis, ED
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