Brain versus brawn: a genetic discovery



Scientists have discovered a gene that defies conventional rules, with the copies inherited from the mother and father working in two very different ways.

All animals have two copies of each gene: one inherited from each parent. For most genes, both copies are active, but for some genes, one copy is switched off, a process called imprinting.

The study the copy from the father is only active in the brain, whilst the maternal copy is active in all other parts of the body.

Dr Mike Cowley, from the Department of Medical & Molecular Genetics at King’s, worked on the project as part of his PhD at the University of Bath. Working with scientists at Cardiff University, the team found that the two copies of the gene have very different functions: the maternal copy is involved in foetal growth, metabolism and fat storage, whereas the paternal one regulates social behaviour in adults.

The researchers found that mice lacking the paternally-inherited gene were more domineering, over-grooming their companions and being more assertive than those with the active gene.

The work, partly funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Medical Research Council and a Wellcome Trust “Value in People” award, gives scientists a better understanding of how imprinted genes work, shedding light on processes that are important for our health and well-being.

Dr Mike Cowley said: ‘The discovery that the same gene can have two completely different functions depending on which parent each copy is inherited from is a very significant one.

‘We can see for the first time how a single gene can be used to reflect the differing interests that a mother and father might have in the development of their offspring, with the mother having most control over body proportions and the father concerned with social interaction.

‘This research builds on our understanding of how a single gene can link the growth of a foetus to physical and mental well-being in adulthood. It is a fascinating discovery which shows us that a single gene can influence both brain and brawn.’

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