New genetic map to reveal secrets of our garden birds

Researchers from the University of Sheffield will be able to unravel the genetic secrets of many of our favourite garden birds, after producing the world´s first genomic linkage map of the Zebra Finch bird.

Male zebra finch.
Zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata)

The Zebra Finch is a model organism for behavioural ecologists and neurobiologists. By identifying the genes in a model organism it will now be possible to see if the same genes have similar effects in other birds and organisms, including humans.

The map will help researchers understand the genes responsible for many birds' amazing diversity of 'colourful plumage, elaborate song and remarkable behaviours that have long fascinated biologists and ornithologists alike. Published in the journal Genetics the map is an important part of a larger global project to sequence the Zebra Finch genome and represents the only involvement of a UK institution.

The map is a vital tool because it shows which chromosome particular genes lie in, similar to the methods used by medical geneticists to identify disease genes in humans. The main use of the map will be to provide researchers with the tools necessary to find the genes responsible for individual differences in traits such as plumage, song, learning and memory, and even sperm mobility.

To produce the map the researchers studied three generations of Zebra Finch, which belongs to a group of birds called the Passerines. Comprising over 6,000 species this group of birds bring the sound of spring to gardens all over Europe and include garden birds such as the Blue Tit, Blackbird, Thrush and Robin.

Dr Jon Slate, a senior lecturer in the University´s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University, who worked on the study, said: "Mapping the Zebra Finch genome is tremendously exciting for several reasons. First, it provides far greater understanding into how bird genomes have evolved over the last 100 million years. For example, we now know that bird genomes are not as evolutionarily conserved as was once thought.

"Second, the map will be a great resource to researchers all over the world. The Zebra Finch is a model organism in several biological disciplines and the map provides the resource to find the genes responsible for variation in bird characteristics. It is very likely that genes discovered in this species will have similar effects in humans as well."

Notes to Editors:
The research `A Linkage Map of the Zebra Finch Taeniopygia guttata Provides New Insights Into Avian Genome Evolution´ has been published online in Genetics – For more information visit the website.

The research has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). For more information visit the webpage.