Email Print Share

News Release 05-096

Variation in Vole Gene is Bellwether for Behavior

Study finds “junk” DNA contributes to animal social interactions

Changes in microsatellite DNA affect social behavior in male voles.

Changes in microsatellite DNA affect social behavior in male voles.

June 9, 2005

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

By studying small rodents called voles, researchers have discovered that slight variations in a DNA region once deemed "junk" actually predict social behavior and parental care giving in males. The differences in the DNA code, which show up over only a few generations by mutation, directly affect how, when and where the protein receptor for the hormone vasopressin presents itself in the brain.

According to Diane Witt, the National Science Foundation program manager for this work, "These studies are particularly important because they implicate key players and possible mechanisms underlying the evolution of species-specific social organization."

This research, published in the June 10 issue of the journal Science, was performed at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University and the Atlanta-based Center for Behavioral Neuroscience by researchers Larry Young and Elizabeth Hammock.

Microsatellites--5 to 5,000 repeated copies of identical short DNA sequences scattered throughout genomes--were termed "non-functional," until now. Young and Hammock studied one particular microsatellite in several species of voles, eventually demonstrating that microsatellite length drastically affects complex social behaviors such as bonding and parenting.

"These findings suggest that these unstable genetic elements significantly contribute to the individual differences in social personality that we see in animals and humans," said Young.

The scientists extended the microsatellite investigation to primates by reviewing publicly available genome data. They discovered this same region was very similar in humans and bonobos. Bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, are known for their empathy and strong social bonds. In contrast, the microsatellite of the less-empathetic, more-aggressive common chimpanzee differed from humans and bonobos.

According to NSF's Witt, random mutations that result in variable lengths of DNA in microsatellite regions may represent unique opportunities for the expression of genetic adaptations that lead to behavioral diversity in a species.


Media Contacts
Richard (Randy) Vines, NSF, (703) 292-7963, email:
Lisa Newbern, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, (404) 727-7709, email:
Poul Olson, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, (404) 463-9433, email:

Program Contacts
Diane M. Witt, NSF, (703) 292-8423, email:

Principal Investigators
Larry Young, Emory University School of Medicine, (404) 727-8272, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

mail icon Get News Updates by Email 

Connect with us online
NSF website:
NSF News:
For News Media:
Awards database:

Follow us on social