Sunday, January 20, 2013

Nature Study of the Genetics of Burrowing

NatureNews has this interesting story about this recent study on the genetics of burrowing in mice.

A sample from the news story:

Oldfield mice are native to the southeastern United States, where they burrow in soils ranging from sandy beaches to silt-rich clays. Wherever they dig, their holes look much the same, with a long entrance tunnel and a second tunnel that stops short of the surface and allows them to escape predators. Such invariability hints that the trait is encoded in DNA, says Hoekstra.

To find out where, she and her Harvard colleagues Jesse Weber and Brant Peterson cross-bred oldfield mice with deer mice, whose burrows are shallow and lack escape routes. The offspring continued to build complex tunnels, suggesting that the oldfield burrowing genes were dominant.

And the summary of the study:

Relative to morphological traits, we know little about how genetics influence the evolution of complex behavioural differences in nature1. It is unclear how the environment influences natural variation in heritable behaviour2, and whether complex behavioural differences evolve through few genetic changes, each affecting many aspects of behaviour, or through the accumulation of several genetic changes that, when combined, give rise to behavioural complexity3. Here we show that in nature, oldfield mice (Peromyscus polionotus) build complex burrows with long entrance and escape tunnels, and that burrow length is consistent across populations, although burrow depth varies with soil composition. This burrow architecture is in contrast with the small, simple burrows of its sister species, deer mice (P. maniculatus). When investigated under laboratory conditions, both species recapitulate their natural burrowing behaviour. Genetic crosses between the two species reveal that the derived burrows of oldfield mice are dominant and evolved through the addition of multiple genetic changes. In burrows built by first-generation backcross mice, entrance-tunnel length and the presence of an escape tunnel can be uncoupled, suggesting that these traits are modular. Quantitative trait locus analysis also indicates that tunnel length segregates as a complex trait, affected by at least three independent genetic regions, whereas the presence of an escape tunnel is associated with only a single locus. Together, these results suggest that complex behaviours—in this case, a classic ‘extended phenotype’4—can evolve through multiple genetic changes each affecting distinct behaviour modules.