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School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

Epigenetics of Prenatal Reprogramming in the Zebra Finch

  • Supervisor

Project description

Prenatal conditions can have lasting consequences on an organism’s life course. In both mammals and birds, mothers may modulate the development of their offspring during gestation through transmission of chemical signals, but growing evidence suggests that embryos may also be sensitive to acoustic signals that can lead to long-term effects on brain development and behaviour. A striking example of this has been described by our partners in Australia, who showed that wild-derived zebra finches emit “heat calls” to their eggs that reprogram how the embryos develop and behave after hatching (1, 2).  We hypothesise that this reprogramming will involve a sequence of epigenetic events in the developing brain, and are testing this in a collaborative project currently funded by the BBSRC (BB/S003223/1, “Developmental reprogramming following prenatal acoustic signals”).  Our results to date support this hypothesis, and have identified a core set of brain gene expression changes that emerge shortly after exposure of embryos to heat calls.  This project will build on these initial results, with the goal of working out the epigenetic pathways by which heat calls are first detected in the embryo and then result in developmental changes that are adaptive under conditions of heat stress.  The work will employ analyses of gene expression and DNA methylation well established in the Clayton lab (36) and will also benefit from our ongoing collaboration with Mylene Mariette and Kate Buchanan at the Centre for Integrative Ecology in Australia (

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  1. M. Mariette, K. L. Buchanan, Prenatal acoustic communication programs offspring for high posthatching temperatures in a songbird. Science. 353, 812–814 (2016).
  2. M. M. Mariette, A. Pessato, W. A. Buttemer, A. E. McKechnie, E. Udino, R. N. Collins, A. Meillère, A. T. D. Bennett, K. L. Buchanan, Parent-embryo acoustic communication: a specialised heat vocalisation allowing embryonic eavesdropping. Sci. Rep. 8, 17721 (2018).
  3. J. M. George, Z. W. Bell, D. Condliffe, K. Dohrer, T. Abaurrea, K. Spencer, A. Leitão, M. Gahr, P. J. Hurd, D. F. Clayton, Acute social isolation alters neurogenomic state in songbird forebrain. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., 201820841 (2019).
  4. Z. W. Bell, P. Lovell, C. V. Mello, P. K. Yip, J. M. George, D. F. Clayton, Urotensin-related gene transcripts mark developmental emergence of the male forebrain vocal control system in songbirds. Sci. Rep. 9, 816 (2019).
  5. C. V. Mello, D. F. Clayton, The opportunities and challenges of large-scale molecular approaches to songbird neurobiology. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 50, 70–76 (2014).
  6. Y.-C. Lin, C. N. Balakrishnan, D. F. Clayton, Functional genomic analysis and neuroanatomical localization of miR-2954, a song-responsive sex-linked microRNA in the zebra finch. Front. Neurosci. 8, 409 (2014).

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