Were it human, the family would argue it out on a national talk show. As it is, the social behavior of these tiny rodents has scientists intrigued, right down to their naked mole-rat molecules. "African mole-rats are very good models for studying social structure. I'm interested in the genetic markers associated with structure," said Colleen Ingram, whose doctoral degree will be bestowed Friday at Texas A&M University based on her findings about the critters' parentage.
Ingram looked at regions of DNA - specifically the microsatellites, which represent distinct DNA bands, much like a satellite, which separate from the main DNA band. These rapidly changing regions of DNA don't code for any particular trait, as far as scientists can tell. Ingram thought these regions shouldn't be overlooked.
"If there is a random-mating population, there are a lot of sizes of those DNA bands, but a child only gets one set from the mother and one from the father," Ingram noted. These markers are used in paternity cases for humans, she said.
She looked for changes in the processes and patterns of this strand in mole-rats, she said.
"The current methods of analyses of microsatellite markers are oversimplified and may lead to incorrect conclusions when looking at natural populations and their social structures," Ingram said. "The relationship among members of the mole-rat family are well-accepted. Some species (of mole-rat) are strictly solitary while others, such as the naked mole-rat, are highly social."
DNA markers, like the satellites, are important because they can reveal how traits pass from one mother to her multitude of babies conceived by various interrelated fathers. That may help understand why scores of offspring in the family are willing
Contact: Kathleen Phillips
Texas A&M University - Agricultural Communications