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Genomics analysis of potassium channel genes in songbirds reveals molecular specializations of brain circuits for the maintenance and production of learned vocalizations

Peter V Lovell, Julia B Carleton and Claudio V Mello*

Author Affiliations

Department of Behavioral Neuroscience, Oregon Health and Sciences University, 3181 Sam Jackson Park Rd L470, Portland, OR, USA

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BMC Genomics 2013, 14:470  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-14-470

Published: 11 July 2013



A fundamental question in molecular neurobiology is how genes that determine basic neuronal properties shape the functional organization of brain circuits underlying complex learned behaviors. Given the growing availability of complete vertebrate genomes, comparative genomics represents a promising approach to address this question. Here we used genomics and molecular approaches to study how ion channel genes influence the properties of the brain circuitry that regulates birdsong, a learned vocal behavior with important similarities to human speech acquisition. We focused on potassium (K-)Channels, which are major determinants of neuronal cell excitability.

Starting with the human gene set of K-Channels, we used cross-species mRNA/protein alignments, and syntenic analysis to define the full complement of orthologs, paralogs, allelic variants, as well as novel loci not previously predicted in the genome of zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata). We also compared protein coding domains in chicken and zebra finch orthologs to identify genes under positive selective pressure, and those that contained lineage-specific insertions/deletions in functional domains. Finally, we conducted comprehensive in situ hybridizations to determine the extent of brain expression, and identify K-Channel gene enrichments in nuclei of the avian song system.


We identified 107 K-Channel finch genes, including 6 novel genes common to non-mammalian vertebrate lineages. Twenty human genes are absent in songbirds, birds, or sauropsids, or unique to mammals, suggesting K-Channel properties may be lineage-specific. We also identified specific family members with insertions/deletions and/or high dN/dS ratios compared to chicken, a non-vocal learner. In situ hybridization revealed that while most K-Channel genes are broadly expressed in the brain, a subset is selectively expressed in song nuclei, representing molecular specializations of the vocal circuitry.


Together, these findings shed new light on genes that may regulate biophysical and excitable properties of the song circuitry, identify potential targets for the manipulation of the song system, and reveal genomic specializations that may relate to the emergence of vocal learning and associated brain areas in birds.

Learned vocalizations; Songbird; Potassium channel; Genomics; Gene expression; In situ hybridization; Song system