Our DNA determines a lot about who we are and how we play with others, but recent studies of social animals (birds and bees, among others) show that the interaction between genes and behavior is more of a two-way street than most of us realize.
This is not a new idea to neuroscience, but one that is gaining strength, said University of Illinois entomology and neuroscience professor Gene Robinson, lead author of a review on the subject this week in the journal Science. Stanford University biology professor Russell Fernald and Illinois cell and developmental biology and neuroscience professor David Clayton are co-authors.
Genes in the brain are malleable, turning on or off in response to internal and external cues. While genetic variation influences brain function and social behavior, the authors write, social information also alters gene expression in the brain to influence behavior.
Thanks to the newly sequenced genomes of several social animals, including honey bees and zebra finches, and new technologies such as microarrays (which allow researchers to glimpse the activity of thousands of genes at a time) neuroscientists are gradually coming to understand that "there is a dynamic relationship between genes and behavior," Robinson said. "Behavior is not etched in the DNA."
A critical insight came in 1992, in a study of songbirds led by David Clayton. He and his colleagues found that expression of a specific gene increases in the forebrain of a zebra finch or canary just after it hears a new song from a male of the same species. This gene, egr1, codes for a protein that itself regulates the expression of other genes.
The finding was not unprecedented; previous studies had shown that genes switch on and off when an animal is trained to perform a task in the laboratory, Robinson said.
But when Clayton's team found this change in gene expression in response to a social signal a song from a po
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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign