Fighting like a girl or boy determined by gene in fruit flies

Boston, MA -- Fighting like a girl or fighting like a boy is hardwired into fruit fly neurons, according to a study in the Nov. 19 Nature Neuroscience advance online publication by a research team from Harvard Medical School and the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna. The results confirm that a gene known as "fruitless" is a key factor underlying sexual differences in behavior. The findings mark a milestone in an unlikely new animal model for understanding the biology of aggression and how the nervous system gives rise to different behaviors.

"Aggression is a very serious problem in society, and it's a problem with a biological and genetic component," said co-author Edward Kravitz, the George Packer Berry professor of neurobiology at HMS, who developed the fruit fly fighting model used. "We want to understand that. I can't think of a better system to study than fruit flies. And no one gets hurt."

The fruitless gene is known for its role in male courtship. The large gene makes a set of male-specific proteins found exclusively in the nervous system of fruit flies, in about 2 percent of neurons. The proteins are necessary for normal courting. Males missing the proteins do not court females, and they sometimes court males, other research groups have shown. Females with a male version of the gene perform the male courting ritual with other females.

The same gene directs another sex-specific behavior fighting patterns, the new study shows. Female fighting, for example, largely involves head butts and some shoving. Males prefer lunges; they rear up on their back legs and snap their forelegs down hard sometimes nailing an opponent that is slow to retreat.

The flies undergo a major role reversal when the male and female gene versions are switched. With a feminine fruitless gene, male flies adopt more ladylike tactics, mostly the head butt and some shoving. With the masculine fruitless gene, females instinctively lunge to t

Contact: John Lacey
Harvard Medical School

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