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Songbird Genome to Aid Understanding of Learning, Memory and more

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In research to be published tomorrow (01 April 2010) in Nature, scientists break the news that they have sequenced the zebra finch genome. This is only the second ever bird genome to be sequenced - the first being that of the chicken.

The zebra finch offers a opportunity for us to understand the genetics behind the wiring and re-wiring of our brains when we learn and memorize, as well as many other individual features such as immunity and fertility. It will also reveal the genetics underpinning some of the uniquely fascinating traits of birds such as plumage and song.

Teams across the USA, Europe and the Middle East, including seven UK-based research groups, have contributed to this substantial project, which includes funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said: "Genome data like these are extremely valuable and it is really important to fulfil the potential of such information. There is considerable excellence in the UK in bioinformatics and we are thinking hard about how best to make these large collections of data and metadata available in the most useful form for researchers. We are committed to this end and BBSRC has considerable expertise amongst our community of researchers and in the BBSRC funded institutes."

Mick Watson, an author on the paper and Head of Bioinformatics at the Institute for Animal Health said: "To understand a genome, we need more than just the DNA sequence itself. Many scientists must work together to define which parts of the DNA are functional, and what they do."

Professor Dave Burt, an author on the paper and head of Avian Genomics at The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh said: "The input of many biologists has been crucial to build our knowledge of the zebra finch genome. Having both the zebra finch and chicken genomes sequenced helps us to understand more about the biology and evolution of birds and the comparison of the zebra finch genome with others allowed us to define the genes. At The Roslin Institute we have gone on to use additional information from the chicken and human genomes to identify the function of more than 80% of the defined zebra finch genes."

Mr Watson continued: "When researchers generate data about gene expression, we need powerful computer tools in order to understand what the data tells us."

Two UK based bioinformatics tools - the Ensembl resource which is co-developed and jointly run by the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and the CORNA software developed by the Bioinformatics Group at the Institute for Animal Health, an institute of BBSRC - were vital for drawing out crucial information from data in this project.

Dr Paul Flicek, an author on the paper and joint head of Ensembl said: "Having a second bird genome helps us to understand vertebrate evolution. Using Ensembl we were able to identify the genes in the zebra finch genome and find the evolutionary relationships between zebra finch genes and those in other species.

By doing this we can identify characteristic evolutionary features that are common to birds and mammals, as well as those evolutionary features that distinguish mammals from birds."

Mr Watson concluded: "This broad collaboration has allowed a large group of researchers to work together to share data, knowledge, tools and expertise to produce a meaningful genome sequence that will be invaluable to many areas of research."

The work to produce this genome sequence is funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) with additional support in the form of grants to some of the researchers from other funding bodies in the USA and Europe, including the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the UK.

The seven UK groups are at EMBL-EBI and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, the MRC Functional Genomics Unit at the University of Oxford, the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) in Berkshire, University of Kent, University of Sheffield and The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh. BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to IAH and The Roslin Institute as well as grant funding to the groups at University of Oxford, University of Kent and University of Sheffield.