Neurogenomics of Behavioural Plasticity in Socioecological Contexts


Social and ecological challenges often elicit behavioural and physiological responses that are adaptive and subject to selection. The varying behavioural states and traits of animals are a direct output of the nervous system and underlying molecular substrates. Changes in gene expression in response to a variety of contexts such as mate choice, aggression and developmental experience can alter a number of cellular and neural pathways that lead to changes in behaviour. A common framework has emerged to understand the role of the transcriptome in animal behaviour. Behavioural plasticity describes both an individual's ability to modify behavioural states and correlated suites of behaviour in populations, which may constrain variance across contexts. By integrating the study of behavioural plasticity with genome scale, bioinformatics and candidate gene analyses, we are rapidly expanding our understanding of this kind of organismal flexibility, its relationship with the genome and its evolutionary implications.

Key Concepts

  • To understand animal behaviour fully, both the proximate (causation and ontogeny) and the ultimate (function and evolution) mechanisms of behaviour must be considered and integrated.
  • Utilising both forward and reverse genetics, candidate genes underlying a behaviour can be better identified and characterised.
  • The genome is plastic and flexible in response to social or environmental cues, which can lead to changes in behaviour.
  • Comparative transcriptomics across species can help identify and characterise conserved mechanisms of animal behaviour.
  • The relationship between behavioural evolution and the processes that generate structural variation in the genome is not well understood and needs to be considered.
  • The proposed framework will streamline future studies to uncover not only the genetic and neural mechanisms of complex animal behaviours but also its adaptive function and evolution.

Keywords: behavioural plasticity; genomics; animal behaviour; genes; next‐generation sequencing; bioinformatics; gene networks; candidate genes

Figure 1. Induction of behavioural plasticity. On the individual level, behavioural plasticity begins with an animal receiving a social or environmental cue. This cue induces a change in the transcriptome, resulting in suites of genes that are up‐ or downregulated. This change in gene expression can affect hormone levels, neural activity patterns and other transcriptional pathways, ultimately altering long‐ or short‐term behavioural phenotype depending on the mechanism.
Figure 2. Framework for studying behavioural plasticity and mechanisms of behaviour. (1) Identify divergent phenotypic states (e.g. tendency to take risks in presence of predators). These can be distinct behaviours or represent two extremes on the continuum of a single behaviour. (2) Next‐generation sequencing of tissue or cell samples. (3) Bioinformatics and network analyses identify key functional groups of genes, proteins or other cellular pathways. (4) Candidate gene approaches isolate and characterise specific genes' roles in behaviour. (5) Integrate proximate and ultimate mechanisms of behaviour.


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Baker, Matthew R, Hofmann, Hans A, and Wong, Ryan Y(Oct 2017) Neurogenomics of Behavioural Plasticity in Socioecological Contexts. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0026839]