Nav: Home

How status sticks to genes

October 15, 2019

DURHAM, N.C. -- Those at the bottom of the social ladder are known to live shorter and sicker lives than those at the top. And the stress of life at the bottom may have long-term health effects that even upward mobility can't undo, according to new research in monkeys.

The findings of a team led by researchers at Duke University and the University of Chicago are from a long-term study of 45 female rhesus macaques kept at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. They suggest that those who move up in the social hierarchy still show the effects of their once-lowly status at the cellular level, even after they rise in rank.

These captive female macaques jockey with each other for status until a pecking order is established and everyone knows their place. The dominant females generally do whatever they want, getting first dibs on food and space, frequent grooming, and pushing others around to show who's boss. Subordinate females, on the other hand, must move out of the way and wait their turn.

At the beginning of the experiment, the researchers put unrelated females who didn't know each other into groups of five, introducing them one by one. The macaques sort out who's in charge by order of seniority, with earlier arrivals outranking those who join the group later.

The latecomer 'newbie' females inevitably got picked on, cowering and backing down instead of standing their ground. Then all that changed. After a year, the researchers shuffled the groups and re-introduced the monkeys in a different order so that a new social order was established.

As the group memberships changed, a macaque's status within her new group changed too. Some monkeys who were targets before moved up the ranks and became more dominant; others moved down and became more submissive.

Then the researchers looked at the monkeys' blood. In a study published in 2016, the team found that a female's rank affects how thousands of genes turn on and off within her blood cells, especially the immune genes involved in fighting infection. In low-ranking females, many of these genes are 'stuck' on in a way that leaves their immune systems easily riled up by potential microbial invaders, as if fixed in overdrive.

The results of the new study show that a monkey's current social rank isn't the only thing that matters -- her past rank plays a role too.

The team identified 3,735 genes whose activity was still influenced by a monkey's former place in the hierarchy, regardless of how her position changed later.

Females who fell down a rung or two on the social ladder showed the effects of their recent demotion on their genes, said co-author Luis Barreiro of the University of Chicago.

But what was surprising was that even when females moved up in the world, the harassment they suffered in the past still had lingering effects on their immune genes that followed them as they climbed the social ladder.

"We all have baggage," said co-author Jenny Tung, a professor of biology and evolutionary anthropology at Duke. "Our results suggest that your body remembers having low social status in the past," Tung said. "And it holds on to that memory much more than it would if things had been really great."

Published October 14 issue in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research sheds light on how stressful social experiences can get 'under the skin' and influence long-term health.

This "suggests that there are 'biological embedding' processes at work even in adulthood," Tung said.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, Canada Research Chairs Program, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.
CITATION: "Social History and Exposure to Pathogen Signals Modulate Social Status Effects on Gene Regulation in Rhesus Macaques," Joaquin Sanz, Paul L. Maurizio, Noah Snyder-Mackler, Noah D. Simons, Tawni Voyles, Jordan Kohn, Vasiliki Michopoulos, Mark Wilson, Jenny Tung, and Luis B. Barreiro. PNAS, Oct. 14, 2019. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1820846116

Duke University

Related Genes Articles:

How status sticks to genes
Life at the bottom of the social ladder may have long-term health effects that even upward mobility can't undo, according to new research in monkeys.
Symphony of genes
One of the most exciting discoveries in genome research was that the last common ancestor of all multicellular animals already possessed an extremely complex genome.
New genes out of nothing
One key question in evolutionary biology is how novel genes arise and develop.
Good genes
A team of scientists from NAU, Arizona State University, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, the Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts and nine other institutions worldwide to study potential cancer suppression mechanisms in cetaceans, the mammalian group that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises.
How lifestyle affects our genes
In the past decade, knowledge of how lifestyle affects our genes, a research field called epigenetics, has grown exponentially.
Genes that regulate how much we dream
Sleep is known to allow animals to re-energize themselves and consolidate memories.
The genes are not to blame
Individualized dietary recommendations based on genetic information are currently a popular trend.
Timing is everything, to our genes
Salk scientists discover critical gene activity follows a biological clock, affecting diseases of the brain and body.
New genes on 'deteriorating' Y chromosome
Decoding Y chromosomes is difficult even with latest sequencing technologies.
Newly revealed autism-related genes include genes involved in cancer
Researchers in Italy have applied a computational technique that accounts for how genes interact, to find new networks of related genes that may be involved in autism spectrum disorder.
More Genes News and Genes Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at