[Credit: Matt Hamm, flickr.com]
Unfortunately, our new transgenic songbirds are nowhere near as pretty as the brilliant Brainbows of yore. FORTUNATELY, the scientists at Rockefeller aren’t just interested in good looks; they want to understand the mechanisms behind vocal learning–the capacity of animals to mimic the noises they hear, and then change them to produce new sounds. Only a handful of birds and mammals possess this ability–it’s not the same thing as auditory training–the kind of “language learning” that makes it possible for you to teach your dog to come, sit, play dead, etc.
So, how can a neon bird teach us about learning to talk? The glow is how the scientists know that they have successfully inserted a gene into the finch’s genome–no small feat considering songbirds are notoriously difficult to modify. In order to understand how a gene functions, we need to be able to watch it work. (Imagine stumbling upon a Zamboni for the first time; would you know what it did if you hadn’t seen it zig-zagging along on the ice?) Success with the GFP-producing gene paves the way for further genetic research that will hopefully answer questions about how neurons grow.
Earlier songbird research by Fernando Nottebohm, who heads the Laboratory of Animal Behavior at Rockefeller, revealed the capacity for neuron growth in the adult brain–a discovery that ran contrary to scientists’ previous understanding of how brains work.
The transgenic Zebra Finches will allow researchers to examine vocal learning and neuron growth in songbirds on a molecular scale, and hopefully teach us a thing or two about how our own brains grow and learn.