*China Scholarship Council (CSC)-funded project, applicants must be a national and ordinarily resident of mainland China (not including Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan).*
Understanding the evolution of speech, language and vocal communication represents a major, but as-yet unsolved, challenge in biology. The capacity to communicate through language is uniquely human and it does not fossilise, making it difficult to determine how this trait evolved. However, there are features of speech and language that are shared with animal vocal communication, and some of these shared abilities are thought to be prerequisites for the emergence of language. Therefore, comparative studies of humans and animals are a powerful approach to understand the evolution of language, and how speech, language and vocal communication are biologically encoded.
Vocal learning (VL) is a key requirement for spoken language, and outside of humans, few other animals possess this ability to learn new vocalisations. Although widespread in birds, this trait is comparatively rare amongst mammals. It has been demonstrated only in cetaceans, pinnipeds, elephants and bats. Non-human primates have very poor vocal learning abilities. Comparing gifted vocal learners like whales, seals, elephants, bats, and humans with non-learning sister species can therefore reveal the common biological elements and evolutionary factors that are necessary for vocal learning, and that contributed to language evolution. Such approaches have been successful in birds, with convergence between birds and humans in brain circuitry and molecular pathways specialised for vocal learning previously characterised (ref. Pfenning et al 2014). Mammalian specific studies have yet to be undertaken.
Given that VL is found in only rare species and that they build on existing cognitive and physiological domains, it is likely that the genomic modifications that enabled vocal learning could be subtle, and thus may have occurred not only in the domain of the coding genome, but also within the non-coding genome by influencing the regulation of gene expression.
The goal of this project is to develop and apply novel bioinformatic, comparative genomics, phylogenetics, gene networks and big data analysis methods to explore evolutionary signatures that define the genetic architecture of vocal learning, focusing on lineages that utilise vocalisation as a means of communication. Finding convergent evolution of vocal learning across mammals will inform our understanding of the genetic requirements that encode for cognitive and peripheral functions that underlie communication and how this may have led to human communication and language. Convergent signatures will be looked for across mammals, but also in clade specific patterns. If a convergent signature is not evident across mammals, this will point towards more complex evolutionary patterns of this trait that has enabled different groups to develop vocal learning as an end-point trait. Either outcome would give insight into the possible evolutionary and biological mechanisms by which humans developed complex communicative skills underlying vocal learning and speech.
Objectives and significance
This project aims to uncover the genetic signature that underlies vocal learning across mammals, or that has contributed to the emergence of vocal learning in specific clades. Understanding the evolution of vocal learning will be made possible via the following key objectives:
1. To create and curate an extensive dataset of genes and non-coding RNAs involved in human language and fine sensorimotor ability to explore rates of gene evolution across mammals and within mammalian clades.
2. To apply bioinformatic, comparative genomics, phylogenetics methods and models to assess selection signatures in coding sequences, and explore approaches for non-coding RNAs, looking for signatures of convergent/divergent evolution in vocal learning species.
3. Use existing RNAseq and single cell RNAseq datasets to validate the presence and activity of the relevant genes and microRNAs in relevant brain regions and cellular populations and potential cross-talk between coding/non-coding genetic factors.
Training and personal development will be a key aspect of the PhD and we will work with the student to develop a training plan that suits their needs and personal goals. This will include training in scientific methods, but also in personal and professional development (eg. project design and management, communication skills, writing skills, etc) and will be bolstered by the excellent training available from the transferable skills programme at the University of St Andrews. Many of our lab members are also involved in outreach initiatives and we support students to become involved in local, national or international initiatives according to their interests.
The project will be hosted in the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews and benefit from interactions across its three internationally renowned research centres; The Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI), Biomedical Sciences Research Complex (BSRC) and Centre for Biological Diversity (CBD). The incredibly rich research environment and excellent facilities present in the School have led to the School of Biology continuing to be scored by the National Student Survey as one of the top biology schools in the UK. In the student satisfaction led survey, The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022, the University of St Andrews was ranked as the top UK university, evidence of the rich student environment and social and collegiate atmosphere that leads to a highly positive experience for students at St Andrews.
Informal enquiries should be made to Prof. Sonja Vernes at [Email Address Removed].
Please reference “CSC PhD Application – Comparative genomics of vocal learning” in the subject line of the email. We encourage the applicants to contact us as soon as possible.
HOW TO APPLY
Submit an application to St Andrews University through the online application portal: Research programmes - Study at St Andrews - University of St Andrews (st-andrews.ac.uk)
Your online application must include the following documents:
- 2 References
- Academic Qualifications
- English Language Qualification (if applicable)
- personal statement
Once you have submitted your application to the online portal, please submit a scholarship application through the link provided. More information can be found here: China Scholarship Council - Global partnerships and study abroad - University of St Andrews (st-andrews.ac.uk)