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Gene divides brain and brawn

27 January 2011

Dr Anthony IslesDr Anthony Isles

University scientists have discovered a gene that defies conventional rules, with the copies inherited from mum and dad 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.

Researchers from the School of Medicine’s MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics (CNGG) found that a gene called Grb10 has both copies active but the copy from the father is only active in the brain, whilst the maternal copy is active in all other parts of the body.

The study, published in Nature, has shown that the two copies also 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.

Dr Anthony Isles, School of Medicine and Psychology, who led the research said: "This is the first example of where the copy of a gene has two very different functions depending on which parent it is inherited from.

"It seems that the mother and father are using different strategies to influence their offspring, one focussed on the body and the other on the brain.

"Imprinted genes are proving to be important for many aspects of human health, and are very important for brain function. Here is a single gene that may link growth in the womb with both physical and mental health in later life. In future research we’d like to investigate how this single gene might have evolved to serve such distinct purposes."

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 genes involved in metabolism work, shedding light on the causes of obesity in humans.

Dr Alastair Garfield, who carried out the work at Bath and Cardiff but is now working at the University of Cambridge, said: "Grb10 is the first example of an imprinted gene that regulates social behaviour in adults.

"Asserting your dominance over others in your social group can be risky behaviour, and this gene appears to keep that behaviour in check.

"Many genes that are imprinted in mice are also similarly imprinted in humans, so we predict Grb10 could work in a similar way in people."

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