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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Faithful Voles

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on an injection that may encourage monogamy in voles.


CURWOOD: Just ahead: More industry or new homes on the waterfront? The fate of one inner-city neighborhood in New Jersey hangs in the balance. First, this note on emerging science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Forget marriage vows and promise rings; a new study suggests monogamy may be just an injection away. Scientists researching the sexual and social behavior of a mouse-like rodent called a vole believe monogamy could hinge on one specific genetic trait located in the pleasure center of the brain. Researchers at Emory University studied prairie voles and meadow voles, which are more than 99% alike genetically. Except that prairie voles opt for one partner, while meadow voles prefer to play the field.

Through previous experiments scientists knew that the monogamous prairie vole had receptors for a hormone called vasopressin. When voles mate vasopressin is released, and males associate their partner’s identity – typically her smell – with the pleasure of sex. No such receptors exist in the brain of the meadow vole, which means no connection is made to a specific partner. By isolating the receptor gene that causes prairie voles to pair up, researchers were able to inject that gene into the promiscuous meadow vole. The result: the usually wayward rodent commits to a volemate.

For those hoping vole research will eventually lead to gene therapy to tame bachelors and bed hoppers, scientists say no such luck. But they believe the results could help them better understand Asperger’s Syndrome and autism – both of which impair social behavior. That’s because the study provides evidence that changes in the activity of a single gene can profoundly alter social behavior. That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Jennifer Chu.

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[MUSIC: “(Cross the) Heartland” PAT METHENY GROUP: AMERICAN GARAGE (ECM – 1979)]



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