The proposed research will examine naturally occurring molecular variation in the brains of humans and other primates to understand how modifications to the function of genes in the brain relate to differences in developmental and social experience across species. The proposal is highly interdisciplinary, incorporating methods and perspectives from molecular biology, anthropology, neuroscience and psychology, and will advance fundamental knowledge about mechanistic processes underlying gene-environment interactions in the brains of highly social species. In addition to offering interdisciplinary training for graduate and undergraduate students during the proposed research, the PIs will integrate research opportunities with outreach efforts for high school students, high school teachers, and also for broader public audiences, including children. Comparative studies of primates offer great educational and outreach potential due to their deep implications for understanding humans? place in nature. Furthermore, the brain is the most widely studied organ in genetic and psychological studies, making the datasets this project will generate especially worthwhile as open resources for the scientific community. All research conducted will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and disseminated in scientific meetings.

Nonhuman primates have been important model species for the study of mechanisms underlying the biological, genetic and neural basis of a variety of behavioral and cognitive functions. Many aspects of primate brains, including size, structural variation and rate of maturation are tightly associated with life history traits such as cognition, gestation length and life span. These differences are also associated with different developmental rates of primate brains. For example, human brains are extremely immature at birth, followed by slow development, providing ample opportunities for interaction between genome and environment to occur. This research project aims to study the molecular record of such genome-environment interaction in the context of primate brain development. Specifically, the investigators will examine DNA methylation, which functions as cellular memory of environmental input and thus moderates genome-environment interactions, and hypothesize that natural variation in brain size and development of primate species will be reflected in variation of DNA methylation, and in turn, gene expression. Several primate species will be included, encompassing naturally occurring variation in life history traits and brain size. Neocortical areas with distinctive developmental patterns, at cellular resolution, will be compared. In addition to phylogenetic variation, the research will utilize a unique opportunity to investigate how early social experiences have shaped DNA methylation and gene expression within species, using archived samples from chimpanzees and baboon colonies. The proposed research will generate novel opportunities to correlate molecular data with brain and cognitive phenotypes across multiple scales of biology.

This project is funded by the Understanding the Rules of Life: Epigenetics Program, administered as part of NSF's Ten Big Ideas through the Division of Emerging Frontiers in the Directorate for Biological Sciences.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Emerging Frontiers (EF)
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Rebecca Ferrell
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Georgia Tech Research Corporation
United States
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