Some people react more calmly in stressful situations than others. Certain genes, such as the so-called COMT gene, are thought to play a role in determining our stress response. Researchers from the Vetmeduni Vienna and the University of Vienna have now studied this gene in macaques, a genus of Old World monkeys, and for the first time have shown that a specific variant of the gene is associated with higher excretion of the stress hormone cortisol. The gene variant may also influence social rank among the animals. The results were published in the journal Hormones and Behavior.
Animals that live in groups face a variety of challenging social situations. The competition for food and mating partners as well as the establishment of the social hierarchy are potential stress factors.
Ralf Steinborn, Head of the Genomics Unit of the VetCore Facility for Research at the Vetmeduni Vienna, and ethologist Lena Pflüger from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Vienna, studied Japanese macaques living at Affenberg Landskron in Carinthia, Austria, to investigate how their genetic make-up influences the excretion of the stress hormones and the behaviour of the animals.
“Japanese macaques live in strict hierarchy which entails a high level of aggressive interaction. This makes them ideally suited for a study on stress behaviour,” says Pflüger.
Macaques differ in their stress reaction
Pflüger, first author of the study and scientific director of the Affenberg facility, studied 26 sexually mature males during the mating season, a particularly stressful time for male animals as they must compete for females. She discovered that the amount of a metabolic product of the hormone cortisol in the animals’ faeces differed across individuals.
“The macaques appear to handle stressful situations differently. Some are more courageous than others. We were interested to see whether there were genetic causes for this behaviour and how genetics affects the hormonal stress reaction and social rank,” says Pflüger.
COMT gene controls stress reaction in people
The COMT gene is one of at least 18 genes in humans that control the dopamine system in the brain. Dopamine promotes skills such as planning, decision making and problem solving. Depending on its variant, more or less of the COMT enzyme is produced from the gene, resulting in a faster or slower dopamine metabolization in the brain. Higher amounts of dopamine in the brain increase various cognitive performances but are also associated with increased stress reactions.
Steinborn and Pflüger determined the different variants of the COMT gene in Japanese macaques. This revealed that macaques with high levels of the stress hormone also possess a certain COMT variant that presumably metabolizes dopamine in the brain more slowly. The functionality of this variant and the underlying mechanism resulting in higher stress hormone levels will be determined in further studies.
“Our results indicate that animals with stress-resilient COMT variants acquire higher rank positions in the group. But a direct correlation between COMT variant and social rank has to be investigated more closely in the future,” explains Steinborn.
COMT variants make either warriors or worriers
“The dopamine level in the brain controls various behaviours in people. On the one hand, there are the so-called warrior types. In warriors, the dopamine in the brain is metabolized more quickly. Warriors possess lower cognitive skills and are less easily stressed. The second type are worriers, who score higher in cognitive performance tests but are more easily stressed. However, the dopamine system functions like an orchestra and is not dependent on just one factor,” says Steinborn.
In the future, Pflüger and Steinborn want to study other genes that play a role in the dopamine system of non-human primates. They aim to study a variety of primate species with different social styles. Another research focus will be the functionality of the newly discovered COMT gene variant at the RNA and protein levels.
The article „Allelic variation of the COMT gene in a despotic primate society: A haplotype is related to cortisol excretion in Macaca fuscata”, ba Lena S. Pflüger, Daria R. Gutleb, Martin Hofer, Martin Fieder, Bernard Wallner and Ralf Steinborn was published in the Journal Hormones and Behavior.
About the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna
The University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna in Austria is one of the leading academic and research institutions in the field of Veterinary Sciences in Europe. About 1,300 employees and 2,300 students work on the campus in the north of Vienna which also houses five university clinics and various research sites. Outside of Vienna the university operates Teaching and Research Farms. http://www.vetmeduni.ac.at
Affenberg Facility in Landskron, Carinthia, Austria
Prof. Ralf Steinborn
VetCore Research Facility
Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien (Vetmeduni Vienna)
T +43 1 20577-3151
Dipl. Biol. Lena S. Pflüger
Department for Anthropology
Universität of Vienna
T +43 6607332244
Science Communication / Corporate Communications
University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna)
T +43 1 25077-1153
Dr. Susanna Berger | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft
Multi-institutional collaboration uncovers how molecular machines assemble
02.12.2016 | Salk Institute
Fertilized egg cells trigger and monitor loss of sperm’s epigenetic memory
02.12.2016 | IMBA - Institut für Molekulare Biotechnologie der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften GmbH
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering
02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy