My name is Morgan Wirthlin. I am a BrainHub Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Pfenning Lab, in the Computational Biology department at Carnegie Mellon University. My research integrates neurobiology and genomic techniques within an evolutionary framework to answer broad questions about the fundamental mechanisms underlying complex behaviors such as vocal learning, courtship displays, and higher cognition across a diversity of species.
How are skilled, learned behaviors - such as the ability to speak and sing - encoded in our genes? The brain is comprised of a dazzling array of cell types all working in concert to produce behavior, governed by large-scale gene network interactions, the result of millions of years of evolutionary optimization. The falling costs of sequencing have led to an abundance of genomic data, holding great promise for unlocking the genetic basis for behavior. However, the development of effective strategies to decipher complex brain-gene network interactions has been lagging. I explore this problem by approaching computational genomics from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist. In my work, I have shown that one of the best resources we have for connecting genes to behavior is the rich diversity of emerging model species that share complex behavioral traits, such as the learned vocal behavior of songbirds, parrots, bats, and humans. By identifying shared patterns of gene activity in specialized brain circuits for speech and vocal imitation in the few animal groups that have evolved this behavior, we can deconstruct complex neural circuits into the core molecular pathways that underlie their neuroanatomy, circuit-level connectivity, and electrophysiological properties. We can also identify specializations found uniquely in human language and motor circuits, expanding our understanding of the molecular basis for human speech and movement-related disorders. Expanding the scope and reach of this work, I've performed field work in North and South America, and maintain a long-term interest in developing new methods for exploring neurobiological and genomics questions in field settings.