biology

Scientists Sequence Genome of the Great Tit

A team of international scientists, led by biologists from the Netherlands, have succeeded at sequencing the genome of a well known songbird, the great tit (Parus major).

The great tit is not your average bird. Besides it being beautiful, it’s in the top 3% of the smartest birds when it comes to learning new things. This and many other reasons were why scientists wanted to thoroughly sequence and assemble its genome. It was a chance for biologists to gain insight into the evolution of learning, memory and cognitive processes among birds.

Great-Tit

The great tit (Parus major). Image credit: Koos Dansen

Dr. Veronika Laine from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and Dr. Martien Groenen from Wageningen University, along with colleagues around the world selected a male great tit from captivity – a 4th generation captive bird – to sequence its genome. Supposedly, selecting a bird from a captive population with a clear lineage assures scientists of the purest great tit genome possible.

Additionally, to obtain more insight into the evolution of the great tit, scientists sequenced complete genomes of 29 other related species across Europe.

“The great tit has evolved to be smart, very smart,” said team member Dr. Kees van Oers, also from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology.

“For over 50 years, the great tit has been a model species for research in evolutionary, ecological and behavioral research; in particular, learning and cognition have been intensively studied,” the scientists explained in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications.

The team also investigated DNA methylation patterns by performing genome sequencing in brain and blood tissues of the selected bird. In theory, more methylation means more evolution.

“Methylation belongs to the field of epigenetics – the study of what you can inherit not in but ‘on’ your genes,” the paper explains.

“Specific DNA sequences in the genome can be methylated: methyl groups are added to them, modifying how the genes function. This enabled us to identify regions in the great tit genome that have been under selection during recent evolution of the bird.”

Scientists found that the identified regions appeared to have a relative abundance of genes related to learning and cognition

“What research has revealed are so-called conserved patterns of methylation in those same regions, present not only in birds but also in humans and other mammals. The more methylation, the more evolution.”

“Our study adds to the growing number of representative genomes sequenced across the bird family tree,” the researchers said

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