Gene discovery shows parents divided over brain and brawn
27 January 2010
BBSRC-funded scientists at the University of Bath have discovered a gene that defies conventional rules, with the copies inherited from mum and dad doing two very different jobs.
Dr Andrew Ward.
© University of Bath
All animals have two copies of each gene: one inherited from each parent. For most genes, both copies are active, but for some genes, one copy is switched off - a process called imprinting.
The researchers at Bath, working with scientists at the Neuroscience & Mental Health Research Institute in Cardiff University, have found that a gene called Grb10 has both copies active but the copy from the father is only active in the brain, whilst the maternal copy is active in all other parts of the body. It seems that each parent has unwittingly prioritised a different part of the body through the power of genetics - a key question is what is the consequence of this?
The study, published in the prestigious journal Nature, has shown that the two copies actually drive very different processes: the maternal copy is involved in foetal growth, metabolism and fat storage, whereas the paternal one regulates social behaviour in adults.
To confirm this, the researchers studied the behaviour of mice that lacked a copy of Grb10 from their father i.e. the gene was not active in the brain and worked normally in the rest of the body. They found that these mice were more domineering, over-grooming their companions and being more assertive than those with the active gene.
The work, funded from several other sources including the Medical Research Council and a Wellcome Trust "Value in People" award, gives scientists a better understanding of how imprinted genes work, shedding light on processes that are important for our health and well-being.
Dr Andrew Ward. © University of Bath
Dr Andrew Ward, from the University of Bath's Centre for Regenerative Medicine, said: "For the first time, we've shown that the same gene can have two very different functions depending on which parent each copy is inherited from. It seems that the mother and father are using different strategies to help their offspring, one focussed on the body and the other on the mind.
"Imprinted genes are proving to be important for many aspects of human health. Here is a single gene that may link growth in the womb with both physical and mental health in later life.
"It's amazing that one gene can affect both brain and brawn in this way. In future research we'd like to investigate how this single gene might have evolved to serve such distinct purposes."
Dr Alastair Garfield, who carried out the work at Bath and Cardiff and is now working at the University of Cambridge, said: "Grb10 is the first example of an imprinted gene that regulates social behaviour in adults.
"Asserting your dominance over others in your social group can be risky behaviour, and this gene appears to keep that behaviour in check.
"Our study has been in mice, but many genes that are imprinted in mice are also similarly imprinted in humans, so we predict Grb10 could work in a similar way in people."
Notes to editors
Reference: Garfield et al. - Distinct physiological and behavioural functions for parental alleles of imprinted Grb10. DOI: 10.1038/nature09651.
For more information about this research see external contact below. For more information about the Department of Biology & Biochemistry see: www.bath.ac.uk/bio-sci. For more information about the Centre for Regenerative Medicine see: www.bath.ac.uk/crm.
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For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. Visit www.mrc.ac.uk for more information.
BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.
BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:
- The Babraham Institute
- Institute for Animal Health
- Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
- Institute of Food Research
- John Innes Centre
- The Genome Analysis Centre
- The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
- Rothamsted Research
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