Comparative neurotranscriptomics reveal widespread species differences associated with bonding
Background: Pair bonding with a reproductive partner is rare among mammals but is an important feature of human social behavior. Decades of research on monogamous prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster), along with comparative studies using the related non-bonding meadow vole (M. pennsylvanicus), have revealed many of the neural and molecular mechanisms necessary for pair-bond formation in that species. However, these studies have largely focused on just a few neuromodulatory systems. To test the hypothesis that neural gene expression differences underlie differential capacities to bond, we performed RNA-sequencing on tissue from three brain regions important for bonding and other social behaviors across bond-forming prairie voles and non-bonding meadow voles. We examined gene expression in the amygdala, hypothalamus, and combined ventral pallidum/nucleus accumbens in virgins and at three time points after mating to understand species differences in gene expression at baseline, in response to mating, and during bond formation. Results: We first identified species and brain region as the factors most strongly associated with gene expression in our samples. Next, we found gene categories related to cell structure, translation and metabolism that differed in expression across species in virgins, as well as categories associated with cell structure, synaptic and neuroendocrine signaling, and transcription and translation that varied among the focal regions in our study. Additionally, we identified genes that were differentially expressed across species after mating in each of our regions of interest. These include genes involved in regulating transcription, neuron structure, and synaptic plasticity. Finally, we identified modules of co-regulated genes that were strongly correlated with brain region in both species, and modules that were correlated with post-mating time points in prairie voles but not meadow voles. Conclusions: These results reinforce the importance of pre-mating differences that confer the ability to form pair bonds in prairie voles but not promiscuous species such as meadow voles. Gene ontology analysis supports the hypothesis that pair-bond formation involves transcriptional regulation, and changes in neuronal structure. Together, our results expand knowledge of the genes involved in the pair bonding process and open new avenues of research in the molecular mechanisms of bond formation.
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