The study is the first to use an experimental approach to observe how gene expression patterns across a range of genes correlate with an animal's social dominance. It estimates that gene expression can predict the social status of an individual with 80 percent accuracy.
"Our study supports the idea that low social status can be bad for the body. But it hints at the idea that if you improve your social situation, your health improves, too," said the study's lead author Jenny Tung, a visiting assistant professor in Duke University's evolutionary anthropology department.
Tung said scientists have more work to do to understand how improving social status affects the way genes turn on and off. But she found it "exciting" and "comforting" that her team observed positive changes in the expression of immune-system genes of several monkeys whose social rank increased, she said.
The interplay between these effects is the focus of research in the Tung lab. Specifically, we are interested in how genetic differences and gene regulatory effects shape behavioral traits, and in the reciprocal influence of social and behavioral variation on genetic variation and genome function. To pursue these questions, we focus primarily on highly social populations of nonhuman primates, systems that are natural models for human health, sociality, and evolution.
Rhesus macaques in captivity present the opportunity to study social environmental effects on genetics and gene regulation in a controlled setting. We take advantage of the ability to manipulate social status and social group composition to isolate the influence of these variables and to study the regulatory mechanisms that mediate these effects.