Health & Society Scholar Creates First Transgenic Prairie Voles

What is love? It's an age-old question that is getting some new answers from an unlikely source: the prairie vole, a small rodent from the central grasslands of North America.

    • April 12, 2010

Zoe Donaldson’s groundbreaking research on prairie voles may someday help us better understand human social behavior and inspire treatments for a range of mental health disorders.

Unlike other rodents commonly used in scientific experiments, the prairie vole is monogamous and engages in complex social bonding behaviors. Prairie voles groom each other, nest with one another, and pair up to care for their young and defend their homes. As such, they offer research scientists a better genetic model to study the human condition than polygamous rodents like rats and mice.

But the prairie vole has had its own limitations as a research subject. Until recently, it was unclear whether research scientists could manipulate the genes of prairie voles to answer biological questions in the same way that they can with rats and mice.

Zoe Donaldson, Ph.D., a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholar at Columbia University in New York, has cleared up that mystery.

Donaldson and her Team Transfer Jellyfish Genes into Prairie Voles

Last year, Donaldson and her research team successfully transferred genes from another species into prairie voles, creating the first generation of “transgenic” prairie voles. The study was also the first demonstration of transgenesis in a virtually wild rodent species.

“Domesticated lab rats and mice dominate biomedical research, but wild rodent species with more complex social behaviors are better suited for investigating the biology of the social brain,” Donaldson said. “Until now, genetic engineering among rodents has been limited to lab mice and rats.”

The ability to transfer genes to more socially complex animals like prairie voles will help researchers identify brain mechanisms that affect social bonding behaviors such as love, Donaldson says. The technology can also be used to understand and treat the social symptoms of mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders such as depression and autism. “By studying the molecules and brain circuitry involved in social bonding in prairie voles, it gives us an idea of what systems might be inappropriately regulated in the social aspects of mental health disorders,” Donaldson says.

For the study, Donaldson and her team injected single-cell prairie vole embryos with a virus containing a gene for fluorescence found in jellyfish. The success of the experiment was obvious when baby prairie voles were born with glowing green molecules throughout their bodies. Successive generations also expressed the fluorescence.

The findings of the study were published in the December issue of the journal Biology of Reproduction.