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Institute for Genomic Biology Nabs $3M to Explore Genomic Networks Involved in Social Behavior

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A multidisciplinary team of researchers at the Institute for Genomic Biology, a University of Illinois research center, will use $3 million in funding from the Simons Foundation to search for the genetic foundations of social behavior across varying species, IGB said today.

The researchers aim to find out if genes that have been conserved in different animals may influence behavior, and to understand how brains produce social behavior and are impacted by social stimuli at the genomic level.

The IGB collaborators on the project, who are organized into a Gene Networks in Neural & Developmental Plasticity (GNDP) theme, plan to initially focus on genomic responses to aggressive social encounters in the brains of bees, mice, and fish. They will expose these model organisms to unfamiliar 'intruder' animals from the same species and then use high-throughput RNA sequencing methods to quantify gene expression in brain regions that are thought to be involved in social behaviors.

If there are similarities in the molecular responses in the brains of all three species then there is a possibility that these social behaviors "may have evolved from the traits of an ancient common ancestor," IGB said.

GNDP Theme Leader and Principal Investigator Lisa Stubbs said in a statement that the project's larger aim is "to tie the truths we extract from each species together, into a fundamental model of how animal brains respond to social stimulus."

"We are especially excited about how conserved networks of genes are reused, and reshaped, throughout evolution," added Stubbs, a professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of Illinois.

The GNDP team members know that the complexity of brain genomic responses to behavior will require that they use even more sophisticated approaches than simply comparing gene expression-related responses to social stimuli.

"We will probably realize that the shared molecular basis across the different species is not as simple as a gene or a set of genes being common to all of them and playing a big role, but that there is a more complex notion of molecular similarity," said Saurabh Sinha, an associate professor of computer science.

The researchers plan to combine experimental data about gene expression and genome structure using computational and statistical methods, with the goal of producing a gene regulatory network model of which transcription factors are most involved in controlling gene activities in response to social encounters. They will develop these network models for brain genomic responses in all three of the organisms, and will use computational methods enabling them to compare gene regulatory networks among different species.

Sinha suggested that the development of these methods will be one of the important outcomes of this research, saying that having tools to compare regulatory networks across different species "will play a huge role" in comparative genomics.

The IGB team members believe the study could have profound results for human understanding of the social components of evolutionary history.

"The possibility that the same gene networks have been involved in multiple and independent evolutions of social behavior is very exciting because it would provide a new appreciation of the unity of life," added IGB Director Gene Robinson.