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To transduce a zebra finch: interrogating behavioral mechanisms in a model system for speech.


The ability to alter neuronal gene expression, either to affect levels of endogenous molecules or to express exogenous ones, is a powerful tool for linking brain and behavior. Scientists continue to finesse genetic manipulation in mice. Yet mice do not exhibit every behavior of interest. For example, Mus musculus do not readily imitate sounds, a trait known as vocal learning and a feature of speech. In contrast, thousands of bird species exhibit this ability. The circuits and underlying molecular mechanisms appear similar between disparate avian orders and are shared with humans. An advantage of studying vocal learning birds is that the neurons dedicated to this trait are nested within the surrounding brain regions, providing anatomical targets for relating brain and behavior. In songbirds, these nuclei are known as the song control system. Molecular function can be interrogated in non-traditional model organisms by exploiting the ability of viruses to insert genetic material into neurons to drive expression of experimenter-defined genes. To date, the use of viruses in the song control system is limited. Here, we review prior successes and test additional viruses for their capacity to transduce basal ganglia song control neurons. These findings provide a roadmap for troubleshooting the use of viruses in animal champions of fascinating behaviors-nowhere better featured than at the 12th International Congress!

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