Killu Timm „Effects of two genes (DRD4 and SERT) on great tit (Parus major) behaviour and reproductive traits“ | University of Tartu

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Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
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  • Institute of Genomics
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  • Museum
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Killu Timm „Effects of two genes (DRD4 and SERT) on great tit (Parus major) behaviour and reproductive traits“

Date: 
20.09.2018 - 09:30

Killi Timm will defend her doctoral theis „Effects of two genes (DRD4 and SERT) on great tit (Parus major) behaviour and reproductive traits“ at 26 October 10:15. 

Supervisor:
Vallo Tilgar, PhD, University of Tartu,

Opponent:
professor Arie van NoordwijkNederlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW)

Summary:
Genetic studies give the opportunity to understand potential mechanisms underlying individual behavioural variation. Behaviour varies between individuals but the individual response over the situations and environments stays often persistent. Adapting the reaction to situation or being behaviourally more plastic in changing environment is costly and often limited. Limits of behavioural plasticity are affected by the environment itself, other behavioural traits and genes. Therefore, knowing these genes that affect behaviour and the neurotransmitter networks behind behavioural responses, enables to understand individual variation in behaviour. Studies of behavioural genetics also include behavioural disorders in humans, such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia; adaptation in animals (eg reintroduction and colonization) and finally domestication and selective breeding in farming. Behavioural traits are a part of complex system that involves nerve system, hormones, neurotransmitters and genes. Two main candidate genes that are widely studied have been associated with anxiety and novelty-seeking and are related to dopamine and/or serotonin neurotransmission. These are the serotonin transporter gene (SERT) and the dopamine receptor gene D4 (DRD4). Given that dopamine and serotonin regulate behavioural responses and are related to the variation in individual genotypes, the main focus of the thesis was to study the effect of these candidate genes on behavioural traits in a natural population. As most of the experiments were conducted during the breeding season, reproductive traits were also included to analysis. To study this, different behavioural experiments were conducted both in the aviary and in the wild. The great tit was used as a model species that allowed to conduct experiments both in the wild and in the captivity. Individual behavioural variation was measured at the presence of novel object, the nest box trap and during the simulated predator attack. Most of the behavioural experiments were conducted during the breeding season that enabled to include reproductive traits to the analysis. For gene analyses, blood samples were collected for DNA separation and sequencing. The results show that candidate genes (DRD4 and SERT) are polymorphic among Estonian great tits. Moreover, individual behavioural response to novel object was affected by both candidate genes. The DRD4 gene is related to male behavioural response in the natural environment and in the aviary. In female great tits, there was no effect of the DRD4 gene on behaviour in the experiment conducted in the wild. However, while conducting the experiment in the aviary and before the start of the breeding season, a similar correlation between the DRD4 gene and behaviour was found in females as well. Therefore, potential effect of the breeding season on female behaviour play role as the brood size was related to female behavioural response. As novel situations could be stressful, individual corticosterone (CORT) levels were included to the studies. Stress hormone levels were correlated with individual vocal response during release after the aviary experiment. Moreover, the CORT levels were related to DRD4 gene. The lowest levels of acute CORT were observed in CT heterozygotes suggesting that these individuals are less influenced by handling stress. Indeed, when facing the novel object, CT heterozygotes were bolder to approach. Also, when birds were released, CT heterozygotes conducted most of the alarm calls that could refer to bolder behaviour. The SERT gene polymorphisms were also related to the behavioural reaction to the novel object as a SNP in exonic region 3 correlates with behavioural reaction at the presence of different types of novelty: a camera (inducing the shortest delay), an object on the nest box and the nest box trap (inducing the longest delay). Moreover, the SERT gene seems to play significant role when the situation is more stressful. A SNP in the SERT gene exon 8 is only related to behavioural response towards the trap on the nest box as the carriers of the T allele were bolder than CC homozygotes. Also, a SNP in the exonic region 1 is associated with individual risk taking behaviour during simulated predator attack during incubation period. Behavioural adaptation could also affect the frequencies of the SERT gene polymorphisms. A pilot sample of urban and rural birds showed that one particular SNP (SNP234) that is present in former studies and relates to explorative behaviour is missing in Estonian rural population. In urban birds (especially nestlings), the SNP234 was present. Most of the behavioural traits in the current thesis were conducted during the breeding season that enabled to study several reproductive traits toghether with behavioural decisions that might shape breeding success in birds. Therefore, as DRD4 and SERT genes are related to behavioural decisions at the presence of novelty, it was assumed that these genes could play role in breeding success as well. However, the DRD4 gene was not directly related to any reproductive trait studied. The SERT gene polymorphism in exon 8 SNP457 was related to the start of egg-laying even though this particular SNP had no effect on behaviour. Also, the second polymorphism in exon 8, SNP197 was significantly related with the number of hatched young where heterozygotes had larger broods compared to homozygotes. This SNP also affected individual behavioural response at the presence of the trap where heterozygotes were bolder to enter than homozygotes. Therefore, the SERT gene polymorphisms could be either directly or indirectly related to individual fitness as several gene regions in different tests seem to have some effect on breeding success. In conclusion, the aim of this thesis was to study the effect of two candidate genes on bird behaviour and reproductive traits. The results show that DRD4 and SERT genes are important in shaping behavioural decisions at the presence of different stressors and novelty. Moreover, the stress hormone levels could affect the behavioural response related to the DRD4 gene. The SERT gene might be either directly or indirectly related to reproductive traits. The study with DRD4 gene also indicates that conducting experiments in different environments and seasons could have significant effect on individual behaviour. Therefore, in subsequent studies, picking the study site and timing of the experiment should be considered carefully. Differences in the environment could be also the reason why no correlation between the candidate genes and behaviour was found in some populations. By knowing the effects of candidate genes on behaviour, it is possible to expand studies to causal mechanisms that shape behavioural traits.

Location: 
Vanemuise 46-301
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