Behavioural Genomics: An Organismic Perspective


The behavioural patterns observed in many organisms generally result from the integration of both external and internal cues. Why do animals behave the way they do? The study of the proximate and ultimate mechanisms underlying animal behaviour tries to answer this question. Although various approaches have been developed for examining – often quantitatively and with increasing specificity and resolution – the roles genes play in the regulation of behaviour, until recently they were limited to individual candidate genes and often neglected ultimate mechanisms. Advances in genomic approaches in recent years have made it possible to examine gene expression patterns (in the brain and elsewhere) on a genomic scale even in nontraditional, yet ecologically and evolutionarily important model systems. As behavioural genomics begins to integrate proximate and ultimate mechanisms of animal behaviour, we may finally understand why animals behave the way they do.

Key Concepts:

  • A complete understanding of animal behaviour requires the integration of proximate (causation and development) and ultimate (function and evolution) mechanisms underlying the behaviour.

  • Genome‐wide expression profiling in the brain (via microarrays or RNA‐Seq) allows for an unbiased view of genes potentially underlying a behaviour.

  • The genome responds in a rapid and dynamic manner on onset of behaviour or stimulus presentation.

  • Studies of behavioural genomics open up numerous avenues for future research examining both the intra‐ and interspecific function(s) of candidate genes, gene networks underlying behaviour and the evolution of behaviour.

Keywords: ethology; genomics; microarray; animal behaviour; genes

Figure 1.

Relationship between genomics and studying animal behaviour. Genomic tools have the potential to address questions in Tinbergen's four levels of analyses (causation, ontogeny, survival value and evolution) of animal behaviour.

Figure 2.

Use of microarrays and the potential of behavioural genomics. Two independent samples that are uniquely fluorescently labelled are competitively hybridised on a microarray. After assessing the relative expression via signal intensities of each spot on the microarray, we can determine which genes are differentially regulated and organise them on a heat map for visual representation. After identifying differentially regulated genes, future studies can further characterise the behaviour within the animal or across species using a candidate gene approach, comparative profiling or theoretical modelling. Heat map reproduced with permission by The Royal Society Publishing from Cummings et al..

Figure 3.

Opposing transcriptomic responses. For a set of genes regulated in one direction for a particular behaviour (or context), the same (or similar) set of genes can sometimes be regulated in the opposite direction for a different behaviour (or behavioural context). Solid line represents the pattern of expression in one condition and dashed line represents the pattern of expression in a different condition (e.g. different behaviour or life history stage). Arrow indicates onset of behaviour or stimulus presentation.



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Wong, Ryan Y, and Hofmann, Hans A(Sep 2010) Behavioural Genomics: An Organismic Perspective. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022554]