Robinson, Clayton Review Published

Professors Gene Robinson and David Clayton review the link between genes and behavior in the latest issue of Science.

Gene Robinson.

Gene Robinson

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Neuroscience Program Director Gene Robinson is the lead author of a review on the close relationship between social cues, genes, and behavior. The review includes work done by co-author David Clayton, professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, and covers almost 20 years of scientific research.

New research on social animals has revealed some of the close ties between social interactions and gene expression. While researching songbirds, David Clayton's lab provided one of the first examples of a gene responding to a social signal. Clayton and his team found that shortly after a finch hears the new song of a male finch, expression of a gene called egr1 increases, creating a protein that regulates the expression of other genes in the brain.
Discovering that a social cue, like hearing the song of a competitor, altered gene expression in the brain was an exciting find.  It "was a eureka moment for me," Robinson said.

Robinson's own lab went on to find thousands of genes in the brain of honey bees that turn on or off in response to social cues from fellow bees.

David Clayton

David Clayton

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

If a bee hive has plenty of foraging bees, for example, a gene responsible for foraging can be turned off in the brains of other bees. This behavior is controlled by a pheromone, a chemical and social signal made by foragers to tell their fellow bees not to forage.

If the hive lost some of its foragers, however, the loss of pheromone would allow the foraging genes in some younger bees to turn on – creating new foragers.
Genes do not typically dictate behavior directly, the authors note, but rather create molecules responsible for building the brain. The resulting brain function and activity is what determines behavior. 

The nature-versus-nurture debate is still prominent in both science and society, and the issue is becoming increasingly complex.  “There is a dynamic relationship between genes and behavior,” Robinson said. “Behavior is not etched in the DNA.”  

The review covers other social systems like the treatment of queens in fire ant colonies and the mothering methods of rats.
Robinson and Clayton's review appears in the journal Science. You can also read an article about the topic in Newsweek.


November 17, 2008 All News