Sonja Vernes

2022 United Kingdom Award Finalist — Faculty

Sonja Vernes

Current Position:
UKRI Future Leaders Fellow

University of St Andrews

Genetics & Genomics

Recognized for: Groundbreaking investigations into the evolutionary and biological bases of speech and language, using bats as a model. By studying vocal learning in bats, her research is providing new insight into how genes and neural circuits affect vocal communication in mammals and speech in humans, how these traits evolved, and the connection between specific genes and severe speech disorders in humans.

Sonja Vernes

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Neuroscience, Genetics & Genomics, Animal Behavior, Language, Vocal learning

Previous Positions:

Max Planck Research Group Leader (W2), Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, The Netherlands
Principal Investigator, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behaviour, The Netherlands
HFSP Postdoctoral Fellow, Research Institute of Molecular Pathology, Austria
DPhil, Neuroscience & Genetics, The Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics, The University of Oxford (University College), UK

Research Summary:

The capacity of humans to communicate using speech and language is a trait that has captivated scholars for centuries. However, the uniqueness and complexity of human language can make it difficult to study, especially at the biological level. Luckily, humans share certain features of communication with other species. One of these features, vocal learning, is a trait that humans share with a distantly related cousin; bats.

Sonja Vernes, DPhil, seeks to understand the biology underlying speech and language and how these traits evolved, using bats as a model organism. Vernes has been instrumental in establishing bats as a tractable neurogenetic model for vocal learning. She studies bat communication by characterizing bat behaviors, developing bat vocal learning paradigms, and documenting parallels between bats and humans. Vernes also uses bats to investigate the genetic, genomic, and neural mechanisms underlying vocal learning and communication. Her work involves targeted and large scale network-based approaches in neuroscience and genetics, as well as cross species comparative approaches. In addition, she has performed focused studies on a gene called FOXP2 that is essential for human language development. In humans, FOXP2 mutations are an important cause of speech and language disorders, and she provided the first characterisation of its molecular functions in human and mouse model systems. More recently Vernes has explored the role of FoxP2 in vocal learning by determining its genetic expression patterns in the bat brain, comparing these patterns with humans, and generating the first transgenic bats by manipulating the expression of the FoxP2 gene. These data will shed light on why this gene is so important for language development in children and may offer clues as to the mechanisms of speech and language evolution in mammals.

Vernes is also a founding director of Bat1K, a large global research consortium with the goal of collecting reference quality genomic data for all living bat species (<1400 species). Through her independent research and as a global leader, Vernes has established bats as one of the most promising new systems for studying the biological basis of vocal learning, speech, and language.

“It is a great honour to be recognised by the Blavatnik Awards for contributions that would not have been possible without my team and collaborators. Speech and language are such exceptional traits and to be able to ask complex questions about them in a mammalian brain is so exciting given the potential it has to shed light on fundamental mechanisms of cognition, and the evolution of these uniquely human traits.”

Key Publications: 

  1. S.C. Vernes, B.P. Kriengwatana, V.C. Beeck, J. Fischer, P.L. Tyack, C. ten Cate, V.M. Janik. The  Multi-dimensional Nature of Vocal Learning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 376: 20200236. 2021
  2. D. Jebb, Z. Huang, M. Pippel, G.M. Hughes, K. Lavrichenko, P. Devanna, S. Winkler, L.S. Jermiin, E.C. Skirmuntt, A. Katzourakis, L. Burkitt-Gray, D.A. Ray, K.A.M. Sullivan, J.G. Roscito, B.M. Kirilenko, L.M. Dávalos, A.P. Corthals, M.L. Power, G. Jones, R.D. Ransome, D.K.N. Dechmann, A.G. Locatelli, S.J. Puechmaille, O. Fedrigo, E.D. Jarvis, M. Hiller, S.C. Vernes, E.W. Myers, E.C. Teeling. Six Reference-quality Genomes Reveal Evolution of Bat Adaptations. Nature, 2020.
  3. P.M. Rodenas-Cuadrado, J. Mengede, L. Baas, P. Devanna, T.A. Schmid, M. Yartsev, U. Firzlaff, S.C. Vernes. Mapping the Distribution of Language Related Genes FoxP1, FoxP2, and CntnaP2 in the Brains of Vocal Learning Bat Species. J Comp Neurol, 2018.
  4. P. Devanna, X.S. Chen, J. Ho, D. Gajewski, S.D. Smith, A. Gialluisi, C. Francks, S.E. Fisher, D.F. Newbury, S.C. Vernes. Next-gen Sequencing Identifies Non-coding Variation Disrupting miRNA-binding Sites in Neurological Disorders. Mol Psychiatry, 2018.

Other Honors:

2021ERC Consolidator Grant Awardee, European Research Council
2020UKRI Future Leaders Fellow Awardee
2019Visiting Professorship, University of Turin, Department of Life Sciences & Systems Biology
2018-2022FENS-KAVLI Network of Excellence Scholar
2015Levelt Innovation Award, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
2010Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) Postdoctoral Fellowship
2010Marie Skłodowska-Curie Intra-European Postdoctoral Fellowship
2010EMBO Postdoctoral Fellowship
2008Graduate Research Prize, Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, The University of Oxford


In the Media: 

Phys.orgHow birds, mammals and children learn sounds

BBC Science Focus MagazineCoronavirus: Scientists identify genes that help bats fight off viruses

NewsweekHow Bats Beat Coronaviruses Could Hold the Key to Tackling COVID-19 Pandemic

BBC NewsCoronavirus: Cracking the secrets of how bats survive viruses

New ScientistBats can learn to copy sounds and it may teach us about human speech

Scientific AmericanGeneticists hope to unlock secrets of bats complex sounds

Smithsonian Magazine - Some Animals Take Turns While Talking, Just Like Humans. Why?