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J Exp Biol. 2008 Sep;211(Pt 18):3041-56. doi: 10.1242/jeb.018242.

Fish and chips: functional genomics of social plasticity in an African cichlid fish.

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  • 1Harvard University, Bauer Center for Genomics Research, 7 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


Behavior and physiology are regulated by both environment and social context. A central goal in the study of the social control of behavior is to determine the underlying physiological, cellular and molecular mechanisms in the brain. The African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni has long been used as a model system to study how social interactions regulate neural and behavioral plasticity. In this species, males are either socially dominant and reproductively active or subordinate and reproductively suppressed. This phenotypic difference is reversible. Using an integrative approach that combines quantitative behavioral measurements, functional genomics and bioinformatic analyses, we examine neural gene expression in dominant and subordinate males as well as in brooding females. We confirm the role of numerous candidate genes that are part of neuroendocrine pathways and show that specific co-regulated gene sets (modules), as well as specific functional gene ontology categories, are significantly associated with either dominance or reproductive state. Finally, even though the dominant and subordinate phenotypes are robustly defined, we find a surprisingly high degree of individual variation in the transcript levels of the very genes that are differentially regulated between these phenotypes. The results of the present study demonstrate the molecular complexity in the brain underlying social behavior, identify novel targets for future studies, validate many candidate genes and exploit individual variation in order to gain biological insights.

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