Songbirds communicate through learned vocalizations, using a forebrain circuit with convergent similarity to vocal-control circuitry in humans. This circuit is incomplete in female zebra finches, hence only males sing. We show that the UTS2B gene, encoding Urotensin-Related Peptide (URP), is uniquely expressed in a key pre-motor vocal nucleus (HVC), and specifically marks the neurons that form a male-specific projection that encodes timing features of learned song. UTS2B-expressing cells appear early in males, prior to projection formation, but are not observed in the female nucleus. We find no expression evidence for canonical receptors within the vocal circuit, suggesting either signalling to other brain regions via diffusion or transduction through other receptor systems. Urotensins have not previously been implicated in vocal control, but we find an annotation in Allen Human Brain Atlas of increased UTS2B expression within portions of human inferior frontal cortex implicated in human speech and singing. Thus UTS2B (URP) is a novel neural marker that may have conserved functions for vocal communication.
Journal: Scientific reports