By: Emily Scott
A workshop held at the IGB this summer set out to bridge the gap between research in animal development and research in animal behavior.
The two-day workshop brought together researchers from across the country to discuss how these two fields can borrow ideas from each other.
This collaboration could give scientists a better understanding of the regulation and evolution of development and behavior.
The workshop was organized by Saurabh Sinha, a professor of computer science and member of IGB’s GNDP and BSD themes, and IGB Director Gene Robinson. Funding was provided by the IGB and an NSF Research Coordination Network grant.
Animal development, which refers to how single cells become organisms, is often thought of as being controlled by networks of genes. Animal behavior, on the other hand, is thought of as being controlled by the neuronal networks in the brain.
“There is a split there,” Sinha said. “It’s not clear why (they) should benefit from each other.”
However, research has shown that genes may also be involved in controlling behavior.
“When a mouse sees another mouse intruding on its territory and gets aggressive, it’s the neuronal network that is driving the immediate response,” Sinha said. “But then, after that immediate response, things start happening in the brain.”
Over time, changes occur in the brain at the level of gene expression. Researchers are starting to believe behavior may be influenced by both networks — the neuronal network for the immediate response and the gene network for long-term effects.
“That’s new territory now,” Sinha said. “We have no clue how those networks interplay.”
Researchers in both development and behavior want to understand how these processes are controlled and how they evolve.
Studies have shown that most animals share a “genetic toolkit” that determines their development. Research at the IGB has looked into whether animals share a genetic toolkit that influences their behavior as well.
However, studies in the regulation and evolution of animal behavior are far less advanced than similar studies in animal development. This led Sinha and his long-time collaborator, IGB Director Gene Robinson, to consider the benefit of bringing these two fields together.
“Over the years, Gene and I have thought of how we can borrow or get inspiration from the immense richness of developmental studies,” Sinha said. “Can we take lessons from animal development to better understand animal behavior? Is there something special about behavior, especially social behavior, which will not be seen when we study development?”
They decided to invite researchers who were interested in different topics relevant to these questions for a workshop, which took place this summer.
The workshop participants, who came from a diverse range of research areas, were encouraged to share ideas with each other in small groups.
“We really wanted to make some breakthroughs in terms of cross-cutting thinking, rather than just drill deeper into people’s own fields of expertise,” Sinha said.
By the end of the workshop, the researchers decided on two “challenge topics” that they will further discuss in upcoming publications.
Sinha said the workshop cleared up several misconceptions and allowed the researchers to overcome the scientific language barrier between them.
“It was quite remarkable how much got discussed, challenged, people’s opinions changed,” he said. “The whole (workshop) was one intense learning experience for everybody.”
The workshop was the first step toward collaborations that could transform this emerging area of research.
By: Emily Scott
Photos By: Saurabh Sinha