Parrot genome analysis reveals mutations favoring longevity and cognition

blue-fronted Amazon parrot

A new genome analysis of parrots by a collaborative team led by Claudio Mello, M.D., Ph.D., published in the journal Current Biology, reveals genes that appear to be correlated to unexpectedly long lifespans and brain development.

Humans and parrots might not only share language development in a lifetime — the ways human and parrot developed cognitive abilities and longevity may have evolved similarly over time. The new discovery could provide a basis for further research examining more than 300 specific genes, with an eye toward ultimately understanding their role in human health.

In a paper published in the Dec. 6 issue of the journal Current Biology, a team led by Mello and Morgan Wirthlin, Ph.D., reports on the first comparative study of parrot genomes. In addition to Mello, professor of behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine, and Wirthlin, BrainHub postdoctoral fellow in Carnegie Mellon University’s Computational Biology Department who earned her Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience from OHSU, the team included several institutions in Brazil and the U.S., including Duke University.

By comparing a blue-fronted Amazon parrot with 30 other long- and short-lived birds, the researchers identified a suite of genes previously not known to play a role in longevity, as well as verified a likely role of telomerase, a known lifespan factor, indicating this mechanism is also important in parrots.

The investigators also discovered changes in gene-regulating regions of the genome situated near genes associated with neural development. The changes appeared to be specific to parrots. Those same genes are also linked with brain development and cognitive abilities in humans, suggesting that both humans and parrots evolved similar methods for developing higher cognitive abilities. Parrot genomes are overwhelmingly associated with genes critical for human brain function.

Claudio Mello
Mello uses an avian model to help identify gene regulatory mechanisms associated with vocal learning, a behavior underlying human speech and language learning.

Longevity and cognition, the parrot model and a tool for conservation efforts

These findings bring novel insights into the genetics and evolution of longevity and cognition, as well as provide novel targets for exploring the mechanistic basis of these traits. They also support parrots as an excellent experimental model for uncovering the genetic basis of higher cognition. Finally, as blue-fronted Amazon populations have declined in recent decades, owing to drastic reduction in natural habitat due to urban and agricultural expansions and illegal trading, its sequenced genome should be a valuable tool in ongoing conservation efforts.

The research builds on Mello’s previous research involving an avian model. Birdsong learning is a good proxy for understanding the genetic basis of human speech and language development. Birds, particularly parrots, share similar neurocircuitry with people, at least in respect to vocal communication and speech learning.

One of the most distinct groups of birds, parrots have highly developed cognitive and vocal communication skills and a long life span relative to birds of similar size. Like humans, they are vocal learners and develop language over time by imitating sounds.

This work was funded by Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (SISBIO-Aves). The comparative methods for novel genes analysis were developed with support from the NIH/National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders [R21-DC014432 to C.V.M.].


Read more coverage of Mello’s work on parrot longevity and cognition in The New York Times, New Scientist and the Smithsonian