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Parroting Genes

July 23, 2012

Birds and people have similar genes for learning and producing vocalizations.



The genes behind speech…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

(SFX: Squawks of parrots)

These parrots might not sound much like me, but some of the same genes are activated when I talk as when they squawk. One of these shared genes is called egr-1, according to Duke University neurobiologist Erich Jarvis.

ERICH JARVIS (Duke University):

And it’s regulated in these song learning birds when they produce their imitating sounds. We think it’s also regulated in human brains as I’m speaking right now to control those brain circuits involved in speech.


Sequencing the genes involved in bird and human vocalizations would help scientists understand how we learn to speak. But Jarvis says these genes have DNA that’s particularly difficult to decode. He and his colleagues have now developed a mathematical technique that solves the problem. He says the method could also be helpful in the fight against cancer, because cancer cells often contain similarly hard-to-sequence DNA as well. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Like humans, members of the parrot family learn their vocalizations. (Jupiter Images)