Some male prairie voles are devoted fathers and faithful partners, while others are less satisfactory on both counts. The spectrum of behavior is shaped by a genetic mechanism that allows for quick evolutionary changes, two researchers from Emory University report in today’s issue of Science.
The mechanism depends on a highly variable section of DNA involved in controlling a gene. The Emory researchers who found it, Elizabeth A. D. Hammock and Larry J. Young, say they have detected the same mechanism embedded in the sequence of human DNA but do not yet know how it may influence people’s behavior. The control section of their DNA expands and contracts in the course of evolution so that members of a wild population of voles, the Emory researchers have found, will carry sections of many different lengths. Male voles with a long version of the control section are monogamous and devoted to their pups, whereas those with shorter versions are less so. People have the same variability in their DNA, with a control section that comes in at least 17 lengths detected so far, Dr. Young said.
So should women seek men with the longest possible DNA control region in the hope that, like the researchers’ voles, they will display “increased probability of preferences for a familiar-partner female over a novel-stranger female”?