This year the lab has a bunch of stuff coming out that has been cooking for a good long while. These publications are causing me to reflect a bit on the winding road that occurs between "idea" and "finished product". My favorite stories are those that didn't go at all as planned. This paper, led by Dr. Allison Lansverk, my first Ph.D. student, is one of those.
Although Allison did the heavy lifting for the published piece, this work has a long origin story beginning when I was a postdoc in Scott Edwards' lab. Scott, in his crystal-balling way, encouraged me to start working on zebra finches, the developing model system that would soon have its genome sequenced. My idea was to take this system back into the wild and to describe genetic variation in the two extant subspecies - one of which, a nifty little bird called the Timor Zebra finch, has been largely ignored (but see this cool series of studies by Nicky Clayton). Back then, Scott and I had the notion to put this important model system, especially for neuroscience, in an evolutionary context. I wrote an F32 postdoc fellowship to look at selection and recombination in the zebra finch with a focus on both immune and neurobiologically relevant candidate genes (circa 2006, remember). This proposal was not funded, but I did wind up completing a smaller survey of genetic variation and a primary description of the zebra finch MHC.
The end (part 1)
After my time in Scott's Lab, I joined the lab of David Clayton (then at the University of Illinois). My plan there was to really beef up my genomics chops and to get an intro into neuroscience. Here I was able to convince David to purchase 5 pairs of Timor zebra finches from a domestic breeder. I noticed right away that these birds were much more "wild" than the lab colony of Australian zebra finches (In the figure above, Timor on the left, domestic Australian on the right). So I got to thinking, maybe there is some comparative behavior to be done. The first thing I noticed (well, besides an obvious body size difference) was this song variability pattern, now properly described in this new paper. The Timor finches are also a bit harder to breed, and kind of like to be left alone. In the new paper, the small sample of birds we describe from UIUC were birds I recorded there when I was a postdoc. These data then went into a failed K99 proposal, a failed NSF proposal, and perhaps some other failed attempt at NIH funding. Good times...
The end (part 2)
Enter Allison. Allison joined my lab with a keen interest in speciation. Her plan was to take on a new project looking at the evolution of mimicry in brood parasitic indigobirds in West Africa. We did one field season in Cameroon (the same field site I had used during my own PhD), but fieldwork in Cameroon had just become untenable. We got all of our computers stolen, got embroiled in a long a complicated dispute with various police, our landlord and our neighbors. Allison soldiered through a tough three months during which she may or may not have had malaria, and returned to Greenville to regroup.
Allison spent some time weighing what to do next, and whether or not to continue with graduate school, but in the end, we came up with this plan to revisit some of these ideas about genetic and behavioral variation in zebra finches. I'm really thrilled to see this project come to fruition. Many of the key results are described in Allison's dissertation, which you can see here. We continue to refine the genomic results presented in the dissertation with the newly upgraded zebra finch genome. Look for those results to be published soon! Although a whopping ~14 years have passed since I started dabbling in zebra finches, I think there is a lot to to be gained by enhancing the comparative scope of all of the amazing neurobiology done in zebra finches. Maybe it is time to write another proposal...
The end (part 3)