Claudio Mello earned an M.D. in Brasilia, Brazil, and a Ph.D. in molecular neurobiology at Rockefeller University, New York City. His broad interests relate to understanding the molecular genetic and neuronal basis of learned behaviors. His research program is centered on investigating the biology of vocal learning, a behavioral trait that enables speech and language acquisition in humans. Vocal learning is quite rare among mammals, but is very prominent in three bird groups: songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds. To study vocal behavior and related brain pathways in these avian vocal learners, the Mello lab utilizes molecular techniques, comparative and functional genomics, neuroanatomical tract-tracing and behavioral approaches in representative species, most notably zebra finches. Research in the Mello lab has been funded through grants from the NIH (NIDCD, NIGMS, NINDS), NSF and MRF of Oregon.
Besides numerous studies on the molecular and anatomical organization of avian vocal control and vocal learning systems, the Mello lab has actively participated in several collaborative and resource building efforts. This includes the consortium that led to changes in the Avian Brain Nomenclature, the SoNG consortium that developed genomics resources for zebra finches (brain cDNA, BAC libraries and microarrays), the collaborative effort to sequence and annotate the zebra finch genome, and the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium that redefined avian phylogeny based on genomic data. Among other contributions, these collaborations have helped define avian gene losses and lineage-specific gains, as well as led to the discovery of convergent molecular specializations of vocal areas in songbirds and humans. The lab is also involved in collaborative efforts to develop gene manipulation tools in zebra fiches, funded through an EDGE grant from NSF (with E. Jarvis at Rockefeller Univ., and C. Lois and T. Velho at Caltech), and to elucidate neural and molecular mechanisms associated with vocal learning in bats (with C. Portfors at WSU, and M. Yartsev at Berkeley).
A major effort in the Mello lab has been to characterize the expression profiles of brain-expressed genes in zebra finches. Accordingly, we have developed the Zebra finch Expression Brain Atlas (ZEBrA; www.zebrafinchatlas.org) an online and expanding database of high resolution digital in situ hybridization images of brain expressed genes (>700), with reference to a histological atlas. ZEBrA contains numerous molecular markers of vocal nuclei, representing candidate regulators of unique features of vocal learning behavior and related brain pathways. ZEBrA also contains numerous markers of broad brain areas, thus contributing to studies of comparative vertebrate neuroanatomy and brain evolution. Through specific portals and an attributes tool, ZEBrA provides information on how genes are associated with speech and language function, human genetic disorders (OMIM-based), mouse neurological and behavioral phenotypes (MGI-based), and brain expression patterns in mammals (based on Allen Institute’s mouse brain atlas). ZEBrA has been funded through resource building R24 grants from the NIH/NIGMS, as well as a pilot R03 grant from the NIH/NINDS, as well as benefitted from other grants to the Mello lab from the NIH/NIDCD and from NSF.
In 2018, a parrot genome study led by Dr. Mello reveals genes associated with cognition and longevity. The discovery was covered in The New York Times, New Scientist, The Portland Business Journal and an outlet in Brazil.
Also in 2018, Dr. Mello’s research revealed a species of hummingbird with a call well above the known hearing range of any bird species ever recorded. By understanding the mechanism of hearing in such a high range, it may be possible to apply this knowledge to people. The discovery was featured in The New York Times, Nature, National Geographic and Popular Science.Read more
Areas of interest
- Molecular neuroscience
- Speech and Language
- Vocal learning
- Central auditory processing
- Learning and memory
- M.D., University of Brasilia, Brasilia, DF Brazil 1988
- Ph.D., The Rockefeller University, New York New York United States 1993