Different rodent species live in all parts of the world and lead various lifestyles from a solitary existence to taking part in complex societies. As a result, rodents are useful for investigating the biological explanations underlying different social behaviors in different species. The goal of this project is to develop the tools and resources needed to discover the genes that contribute to behavioral diversity. The investigators focus on two vole species that differ dramatically in their social behavior, monogamous prairie voles and polygamous meadow voles. They develop methods to alter genes in these animals, deliver new genetic material to the brain by intravenous injection, and manipulate genes in particular brain regions and cell types. These tools are made available to the broader scientific community via online resource dissemination, presentations at national meetings, local workshops, and hands-on lab sessions with the goal of extending these tools to scientists studying other rodent species. In addition, the investigators incorporate undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral trainees in the development process, generating a cohort of scientists who are versed in understanding the impact of genes on behavior.

One goal of biological investigation is to understand the organizing principles of natural variation. To accomplish this goal requires causal manipulations of non-traditional model species. Wild rodents offer opportunities to pursue such research. They are behaviorally diverse, yet allow researchers to use many of the same tools developed for model organisms. Voles of the genus Microtus stand out as popular study subjects. They vary in mating system, social attachment, and other behaviors that cannot be studied in traditional laboratory species. This project addresses a current bottleneck in integrative research with voles: the lack of technologies to directly interrogate neurogenetic function. To address this, the team of three investigators: 1) Optimize tools for germline manipulation of Microtus embryos; 2) Develop an intravenously deliverable genetic vector; and 3) Test methods for post-mitotic gene manipulation in cells and regulatory circuits. The team disseminates these advances via national meetings, workshops, trainee exchanges, and online resources. The investigators also train undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral researchers, developing a cohort of scientists versed in these technologies. Initial proof-of-concept manipulations focuses on oxytocin and vasopressin systems, and the materials generated are of immediate use to the vole research community. However, the challenges addressed are similar to those faced in other non-model rodents; developing these tools promises to transform the integrative study of genes and behavior more generally.

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)
Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)
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Edda Thiels
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University of Colorado at Boulder
United States
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