Staff Profiles

Morgan Wirthlin, Ph.D.

Scientist II

Morgan Wirthlin is a Scientist II in the EvoGen team and Human Cell Types lab who joined the Allen Institute in 2022. She works to synthesize multi-omics datasets from a diversity of species, bringing a comparative evolutionary perspective to unlock the genomic bases of neural cell types and their resultant phenotypes. Previously, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Carnegie Mellon University's Computational Biology Department and Neuroscience Institute. There, she helped to advance computational and experimental methods for connecting epigenomics to behavioral phenotypes, from bat vocal learning to manakin courtship dances. She received her B.A. in Biological Sciences (Evolution and Ecology) from the University of Chicago in 2009 and her Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience from Oregon Health & Science University in 2016. In her dissertation work, she sought to identify the fundamental genomic and molecular properties that characterize brain circuits for vocal learning, the basis for birdsong and human speech. Her research seeks to understand the evolution of complex motor behaviors in a diversity of species through a synthesis of comparative genomics and experimental neurobiology, as well as developing new methods for exploring neurogenomics questions in naturalistic field settings.


Research Interests

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, bats, and humans.

Research Interests

  • Comparative genomics
  • molecular neurobiology
  • regulatory biology
  • motor learning
  • evolutionary theory

Research Programs

  • Human Cell Types

Selected Publications

Inferring mammalian tissue-specific regulatory conservation by predicting tissue-specific differences in open chromatin

BMC Genomics
April 11, 2022

Kaplow IM, Schäffer DE, Wirthlin ME, Lawler AJ, Brown AR, Kleyman M, Pfenning AR

ZEBrA: Zebra finch Expression Brain Atlas—A resource for comparative molecular neuroanatomy and brain evolution studie

The Journal of Comparative Neurology
February 9, 2020

Lovell PV, Wirthlin M, Kaser T, Buckner AA, Carleton JB, Snider BR, McHugh AK, Tolpygo A, Mitra PP, Mello CV

The Regulatory Evolution of the Primate Fine-Motor System

October 27, 2020

Wirthlin ME, Kaplow IM, Lawler AJ, He J, Phan BN, Brown AR, Stauffer WR, Pfenning AR

A Modular Approach to Vocal Learning: Disentangling the Diversity of a Complex Behavioral Trait

October 9, 2019

Wirthlin M, Chang EF, Knörnschild M, Krubitzer LA, Mello CV, Miller CT, Pfenning AR, Vernes SC, Tchernichovski O, Yartsev MM

Parrot Genomes and the Evolution of Heightened Longevity and Cognition

Current Biology
December 6, 2018

Wirthlin M, Lima NCB, Guedes RLM, Soares AER, Almeida LGP, Cavaleiro NP, de Morais GL, Chaves AV, Howard JT, Teixeira MdM, Schneider PN, Santos FR, Schatz MC, Felipe MS, Miyaki CY, Aleixo A, Schneider MPC, Jarvis ED, Vasconcelos ATR, Prosdocimi F, Mello CV

Convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds

December 12, 2014

Pfenning AR, Hara E, Whitney O, Rivas MV, Wang R, Roulhac PL, Howard JT, Wirthlin M, Lovell PV, Ganapathy G, Mountcastle J, Moseley MA, Thompson JW, Soderblom EJ, Iriki A, Kato M, Gilbert MTP, Zhang G, Bakken T, Bongaarts A, Bernard A, Lein L, Mello C , Hartemink AJ, Jarvis ED