A native songbird known as the "little Aussie battler" has had its genome decoded, which could provide insights into how humans learn language.
An analysis of the zebra finch genome, published in today's edition of Nature, has identified more than 800 genes that play a role in the baby males' ability to learn songs from its father.
The work, by a consortium of more than 20 international institutions, could also help identify the genetic and molecular origins of speech disorders, such as those related to autism, stroke, stuttering and Parkinson's Disease, the researchers say.
"The zebra finch genome will be a valuable tool for neuroscientists," says lead author Professor Wes Warren, of Washington University's Genome Centre, who also helped organise the genome sequencing project.
"They can now carry out studies to identify a core set of genes in the zebra finch brain involved in both hearing and producing song and then look to see if any of these genes are disrupted in people with speech disorders."
The researchers say the male zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) was chosen because of its ability to learn complex songs from its father.
At first, the fledgling makes seemingly random sounds, much like the babble of human babies, they say.
With practice, the young bird learns to imitate his father's song. Once the bird has mastered the family song, he will sing it for the rest of his life and pass it on to the next generation.
Warren says one of the surprising finds of the analysis was that many genes activated by birdsong do not act like genes in the traditional sense and code for proteins.
Among the genes suppressed in the moments after a zebra finch hears a new song, two-thirds are non-coding RNAs, the researchers noted.
Non-coding RNAs are already known to play key roles in developmental processes in humans and in animals, the researchers say.
"Because vocal learning is found in some of the most complex organisms, non-coding RNAs may be a driving force behind this phenomenon," says Warren.
Zebra finch expert Dr Simon Griffith of Macquarie University in Sydney, likens the bird to "the ultimate Aussie battler" because of its ability to survive in harsh outback conditions.
Griffith says the zebra finch is genome will be able to be compared with the chicken genome already published.
"[It will] provide great insight into the way in which genomes are built and put together in different but closely related species," he says.
"It is likely that genes with the same function in a chicken and a zebra finch are highly conserved and will have a similar function in most birds."
Griffith says the iconic native songbird is already transforming science as it is used extensively as a model in laboratories around the world.
"It is one of the easiest birds in the world to work on in captivity."
Although other animals use language, he says, zebra finches provide researchers with the ability to study a whole generation in three months.
Griffith says the findings also highlight the importance and value of Australia's biodiversity to science.
"Australian wildlife is leading the world in genome decoding terms," he says.
"We've had the kangaroo, the platypus and now the zebra finch."