Scientists have sequenced the genome of the blue-fronted Amazon parrot, unveiling new insights into longevity and highly developed cognitive abilities that give the talkative birds so much in common with humans.
The first comparative study of parrot genome by researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University in the US will also provide clues about how parrots learn to vocalise so well.
By comparing the blue-fronted Amazon with 30 other long- and short-lived birds — including four additional parrot species — the researchers identified a suite of genes previously not known to play a role in longevity that deserves further study.
They also identified genes associated with longevity in fruit flies and worms.
“In many cases, this is the first time we’ve connected those genes to longevity in vertebrates,” said Morgan Wirthlin, a post-doctoral fellow in Carnegie Mellon University.
Parrots are known to live up to 90 years in captivity — a lifespan that would be equivalent to hundreds of years for humans, Wirthlin said.
The genes associated with longevity include telomerase, responsible for DNA repair of telomeres (the ends of chromosomes), which are known to shorten with age.
Changes in these DNA repair genes can potentially turn cells malignant.
The researchers have found evidence that changes in the DNA repair genes of long-lived birds appear to be balanced with changes in genes that control cell proliferation and cancer.
They also discovered changes in gene-regulating regions of the genome — which seem to be parrot-specific — that were situated near genes associated with neural development.
Those same genes are also linked with cognitive abilities in humans, suggesting that both humans and parrots evolved similar methods for developing higher cognitive abilities.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t find as many speech-related changes as I had hoped,” said Wirthlin.