Texas A&M study finds courtship affects gene expression in flies

COLLEGE STATION, Jan. 11, 2011 — Biologists at Texas A&M University have made an important step toward understanding human mating behavior by showing that certain genes become activated in fruit flies when they interact with the opposite sex.

Their research, published in the January 2011 issue of the journal GENETICS, shows that courtship behaviors may be far more influenced by genetics than previously thought. In addition, this new understanding as to why and how these genes become activated within social contexts may also lead to insight into disorders such as autism.

“Be careful who you interact with,” said Dr. Ginger E. Carney, associate professor of biology and co-author of the study. “The choice may affect your physiology, behavior and health in unexpected ways.”

To make this discovery, Carney and a student in her laboratory, Lisa L. Ellis, compared gene expression profiles in males that courted females, males that interacted with other males and males that did not interact with other flies. The investigators identified a common set of genes that respond to the presence of either sex. They also discovered that there are other genes which are only affected by being placed with members of a particular sex, either male or female. The researchers then tested mutant flies that were missing some of these socially responsive genes and confirmed that these particular genes are important for behavior.

Carney and Ellis predict that analyzing additional similar genes will give further insight into genes and neural signaling pathways that influence reproductive and other behavioral interactions.

“This study shows that we’re closing in on the complex genetic machinery that affects social interactions,” said Mark Johnston, editor-in-chief of GENETICS. “Once similar genes are identified in humans, the implications will be enormous, as it could bring new understanding of, and perhaps even treatments for, a vast range of disorders related to social behavior.”

Carney, who joined the Texas A&M Department of Biology faculty in 2004, earned her Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Georgia in 1998. She held positions as a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon State University (1998-2002) and as a faculty research scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology (2002-2004) prior to coming to Texas A&M, where her research focuses on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and its genetic control of behavior and nervous system development.

Ellis earned her doctorate in biology from Texas A&M in August and now works as a research assistant in the Texas A&M Department of Entomology affiliated with Texas AgriLife Research.

Because fruit flies undergo many of the same developmental processes as larger creatures, including humans, Carney said they serve as model organisms, allowing researchers to observe details that can’t necessarily be seen in more complex animals. Through this study and her future research, she hopes to learn more about how individual genes regulate behaviors from mating to central nervous system function in humans.

To learn more about Carney and her research, visit http://www.bio.tamu.edu/FACMENU/FACULTY/CarneyG.htm.

For more information on GENETICS, go to http://www.genetics.org.

About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents an annual investment of more than $630 million, which ranks third nationally for universities without a medical school, and underwrites approximately 3,500 sponsored projects. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.

About GENETICS: Since 1916, GENETICS has covered high quality, original research on a range of topics bearing on inheritance, including population and evolutionary genetics, complex traits, developmental and behavioral genetics, cellular genetics, gene expression, genome integrity and transmission, and genome and systems biology. GENETICS, the peer-reviewed, peer-edited journal of the Genetics Society of America is one of the world’s most cited journals in genetics and heredity.

News release includes significant contributions from GENETICS.

Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or [email protected] or Dr. Ginger E. Carney, (979) 845-6587 or [email protected]

For more news about Texas A&M University, go to http://tamunews.tamu.edu.

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