Our understanding of fathering has lagged far behind our understanding of mothering, yet fathers have a substantial impact on the well-being of their offspring. The overall objective of this application is to understand the behavioral, molecular and epigenetic mechanisms that contribute to the effects of fathering on offspring. The central hypothesis is that fathering, like mothering, has long-lasting, transgenerational consequences for offspring behavior that are mediated via epigenetic changes in the genome that influence brain gene expression. The rationale that underlies the proposed research is that studying natural variation in social behavior in a tractable vertebrate system with sophisticated paternal behaviors is likely to have success identifying the causes and consequences of fathering in other organisms, including humans. There are two specific aims: 1: Identify the sensitive period and the molecular mechanisms underlying the effect of fathering on offspring. The working hypothesis for this aim is that fathering influences offspring gene expression during a sensitive period in development that has consequences for offspring behavior later in life. 2: Identify the epigenetic modifications caused by fathering. The working hypothesis for this aim is that fathering causes epigenetic modifications to the genome that influence offspring brain gene expression, behavior and stress physiology. The expected outcome of this project is a detailed understanding of the basic mechanisms by which family environments created by different fathering styles exert protective effects on offspring. These outcomes are expected to have an important positive impact because understanding the impacts of fathers on offspring could enhance the development of interventions that promote the adoption of healthy behaviors. The contribution of the proposed research is expected to be a detailed understanding of the behavioral, molecular and epigenetic mechanisms by which fathers influence their offspring using a new model system for fathering. This contribution will be significant because it will reveal if fathering, like mothering, can influence subsequent generations via epigenetic modifications to the genome. The proposed research is innovative because it utilizes a new genomically-enabled model organism in which fathers are the sole providers of parental care (threespined stickleback fish). The benefit of using a system with sole paternal care such as sticklebacks is that we can isolate the effects of fathering from the effects of mothering.

Public Health Relevance

The proposed research is relevant to public health because understanding the impacts of fathers on offspring can ultimately enhance the development of interventions that promote the spread or adoption of healthy behaviors in humans in varying in social environments. The project is relevant to NIH's mission because fathers have a substantial impact on the well-being of their offspring. Understanding the transgenerational effects and mechanisms underlying the influence of fathering on offspring will ultimately help to protect and improve human health.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)
Research Project (R01)
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Study Section
Biobehavioral Regulation, Learning and Ethology Study Section (BRLE)
Program Officer
Sesma, Michael A
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University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Veterinary Sciences
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Kent, Molly; Bell, Alison M (2018) Changes in behavior and brain immediate early gene expression in male threespined sticklebacks as they become fathers. Horm Behav 97:102-111
Stein, Laura R; Bukhari, Syed Abbas; Bell, Alison M (2018) Personal and transgenerational cues are nonadditive at the phenotypic and molecular level. Nat Ecol Evol 2:1306-1311
Bensky, Miles K; Bell, Alison M (2018) Intraspecific variation in cue-specific learning in sticklebacks. Anim Behav 137:161-168
Bell, Alison M; Trapp, Rebecca; Keagy, Jason (2018) Parenting behaviour is highly heritable in male stickleback. R Soc Open Sci 5:171029
Sheriff, Michael J; Bell, Alison; Boonstra, Rudy et al. (2017) Integrating Ecological and Evolutionary Context in the Study of Maternal Stress. Integr Comp Biol 57:437-449
Bukhari, Syed Abbas; Saul, Michael C; Seward, Christopher H et al. (2017) Temporal dynamics of neurogenomic plasticity in response to social interactions in male threespined sticklebacks. PLoS Genet 13:e1006840
Bensky, Miles K; Paitz, Ryan; Pereira, Laura et al. (2017) Testing the predictions of coping styles theory in threespined sticklebacks. Behav Processes 136:1-10
Pearish, S; Hostert, L; Bell, A M (2017) A standardized method for quantifying consistent individual differences in schooling behaviour. J Fish Biol 90:443-450
Sanogo, Yibayiri O; Bell, Alison M (2016) Molecular mechanisms and the conflict between courtship and aggression in three-spined sticklebacks. Mol Ecol 25:4368-76
Paitz, Ryan T; Bukhari, Syed Abbas; Bell, Alison M (2016) Stickleback embryos use ATP-binding cassette transporters as a buffer against exposure to maternally derived cortisol. Proc Biol Sci 283:20152838

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