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Whether you are an anxious type, or a fearless person - such individual differences in personality could be partly due to the genes you carry. In humans, it is hard to prove the existence of such "personality genes" - there are simply too many factors that influence human behaviour and these factors are hard to control experimentally. Birds are an easier target for research and indeed, they also have different personalities. An international team of researchers have now found evidence for the existence of a "curiosity-gene" in a songbird, the great tit (Parus major). The gene (Drd4) carries the building instructions for a receptor in the brain, which forms the docking station for the neurotransmitter dopamine. Birds with a specific variant of this dopamine receptor D4 gene show a stronger exploratory behaviour than individuals with other variants (Proceedings of the Royal Society London B, 2 May 2007).
There is already evidence that variations (polymorphisms) in neurotransmitter-related genes are associated with personality differences among humans. Research from the last decade suggested a promising link between the Drd4-gene and the trait curiosity (novelty-seeking). Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, together with a former lab member who is now at the Cawthron Institute in Nelson (New Zealand) and with colleagues from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Heteren, have shown that the choice of the Drd4-gene in the study of the great tit turned out to be a good bet.
In the Drd4 gene of this bird, they discovered 73 polymorphisms, of which 66 were so-called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), where only a single nucleotide has been exchanged between the two variants. One such SNP, located at position 830, is indeed associated with the exploratory behaviour (read:
Contact: Dr. Bart Kempenaers