Using the canary genome to decipher the evolution of hormone-sensitive gene regulation in seasonal singing birds

Canary song is regulated by hormones. © MPI f. Ornithology/ S. Seltmann

While the song of all songbirds is controlled by the same neural circuit, the hormone dependence of singing behavior varies greatly between species. For this reason, songbirds are ideal organisms to study ultimate and proximate mechanisms of hormone-dependent behavior and neuronal plasticity.


We present the high quality assembly and annotation of a female 1.2-Gbp canary genome. Whole genome alignments between the canary and 13 genomes throughout the bird taxa show a much-conserved synteny, whereas at the single-base resolution there are considerable species differences. These differences impact small sequence motifs like transcription factor binding sites such as estrogen response elements and androgen response elements. To relate these species-specific response elements to the hormone-sensitivity of the canary singing behavior, we identify seasonal testosterone-sensitive transcriptomes of major song-related brain regions, HVC and RA, and find the seasonal gene networks related to neuronal differentiation only in the HVC. Testosterone-sensitive up-regulated gene networks of HVC of singing males concerned neuronal differentiation. Among the testosterone-regulated genes of canary HVC, 20% lack estrogen response elements and 4 to 8% lack androgen response elements in orthologous promoters in the zebra finch.


The canary genome sequence and complementary expression analysis reveal intra-regional evolutionary changes in a multi-regional neural circuit controlling seasonal singing behavior and identify gene evolution related to the hormone-sensitivity of this seasonal singing behavior. Such genes that are testosterone- and estrogen-sensitive specifically in the canary and that are involved in rewiring of neurons might be crucial for seasonal re-differentiation of HVC underlying seasonal song patterning.

Frankl-Vilches, C. et al.: Using the canary genome to decipher the evolution of hormone-sensitive gene regulation in seasonal singing birds. Genome Biol. 2015 16:19.