Technology & Science

Gene domesticates lusty meadow vole

Gene therapy changes promiscuous male voles into monogamous bedfellows, scientists find.

Promiscuous male meadow voles turned monogamous after a gene was transferred into their brains, scientists say.

Voles are bigger than mice, smaller than rats. They have short tails, hidden ears and small round eyes.

In captivity, meadow and prairie voles have opposite mating patterns. Meadow voles frequently mate with multiple partners while prairie voles form lifelong bonds with one mate.

Scientists knew the ventral forebrains of prairie voles had higher levels of vasopressin receptors compared to meadow voles. The vasopressin protein is released in the brain after sex and is involved in pair bonding.

Researchers in Atlanta used a virus to transfer the vasopressin receptor gene from prairie voles into their meadow cousins.

They found the formerly promiscuous rodents spent more time cuddling with their current partners rather than with new females, compared to control animals.

The experimental meadow voles also spent more time with their pups and less time grooming themselves, the researchers said in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

The study showed how changing the activity of a single gene can change the social behaviour in a simple animal model, said study co-author Larry Young of the department of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Emory University.

"If the [vasopressin receptors] are indeed the adjustable nozzle atop a social-glue dispenser in the mammalian brain, these results could have wider significance for understanding social behaviour," wrote psychologist Evan Balaban of Montreal's McGill University.

Previous research suggested vasopressin receptors may play a role in disorders of the ability to form social bonds, such as autism.