There is significant and often heritable variation in cognition and its underlying neural mechanisms, yet specific genetic contributions to such variation are not well characterized. Black-capped chickadees present a good model to investigate the genetic basis of cognition because they exhibit tremendous climate-related variation in memory, hippocampal morphology and neurogenesis rates throughout the North American continent, and these cognitive traits appear to have a heritable basis. We examined the hippocampal transcriptome profiles of laboratory-reared chickadees from the two most divergent populations to test whether differential gene expression in the hippocampus is associated with population differences in spatial memory, hippocampal morphology and adult hippocampal neurogenesis rates. Using high-resolution mRNA sequencing coupled to a de novo transcriptome assembly, we generated 23 295 consensus sequences, which predicted 16 206 protein sequences with 13 982 showing high similarity to known protein sequences or conserved hypothetical proteins in other species. Of these, we identified differential expression in nearly 380 genes, with 47 genes specifically linked to neurogenesis, apoptosis, synaptic function, and learning and memory processes. Many of the other differentially expressed genes, however, may be associated with other functions. Our study presents the first avian hippocampal transcriptome, and it is the first study identifying differential gene expression associated with natural variation in cognition and the hippocampus. Our results provide additional support to the hypothesis that population differences in memory, hippocampal morphology and neurogenesis in chickadees have likely resulted from natural selection that appears to act on memory and its underlying neural mechanisms.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.