A team of neuroscientists was left “really surprised” after a gene-editing experiment on hamsters turned the docile creatures into “aggressive” monsters. In a statement from Georgia State University (GSU) in the US, researchers highlighted the new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
According to the press release, scientists used Syrian hamsters and CRISPR-Cas9 – a revolutionary technology that makes it possible to turn genes on or off in cells. The technology turned off a receptor of vasopressin – a hormone associated with increased aggression.
The team of researchers believed that the genetic modification would make the hamsters more sociable and peaceful. Surprisingly, however, the docile animals became more aggressive. “We were really surprised by the results,” H. Elliot Albers, one of the principal investigators in the study, said in a statement, adding: “We expected that if we eliminated vasopressin activity, we would reduce aggression as well as social communication. would decrease. But the opposite happened.”
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The researchers explained that the hamsters without the receptor showed “much higher levels” of social communication behavior than their counterparts with intact receptors. In addition, the team noted that the typical sex differences observed in aggressiveness were eliminated with both male and female hamsters showing “high levels of aggression” toward other individuals of the same sex. Behaviors included chasing, biting and pinning, the study found.
This suggests a surprising conclusion,” said Mr. Albers, according to the statement. “While we know that vasopressin enhances social behavior by acting in a number of brain regions, it is possible that the more global effects of the Avpr1a receptor may be inhibitory.”
Furthermore, the lead researcher added that the “counter-intuitive findings” show that the scientists “don’t understand this system”. Mr Albers went on to say that developing gene-edited hamsters was “not easy”.
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Now scientists have said that a better understanding of vasopressin’s role in social behavior is vital to help scientists identify new treatment strategies for psychiatric disorders in people ranging from autism to depression.