Today I and my research group focus on the genetic and epigenetic backgrounds of stress induced behaviour, tackling domestication and animal welfare using a fundamental approach.
Epigenetics encode behaviour
Epigenetics encompasses all the mechanisms involved in orchestrating a genome, the factors regulating when and how much a gene is expressed. We are especially interested in DNA methylation, which is the chemical modification of the cytosine base of DNA, which in turn affects the transcription of the affected gene.
The interesting thing about epigenetics is that, unlike genetics, it is dynamic. Thus epigenetic variation responds to environmental input. For example, an animal that experiences stress will have epigenetic modifications to its genome, which in turn will affect how it responds in other situations.
One key factor about epigenetics is that some changes can be transferred across generations. Thus the stress experienced by one individual may change the behaviour and biology of its descendants, perhaps even several generations away.
Domestication as a model for stress
My AVIAN Behavioural Genomics and Physiology research group at Linköping University uses domestication as a model system for the evolution of behaviour. This takes advantage of the fact that during domestication animals have adapted to living with humans, and become less susceptible to stress. Thus, by comparing domestic animals with their wild ancestors, it is possible to analyse the genetic mechanisms involved in stress behaviour.
At the AVIAN group we work mainly with chickens. One example of our research is the long term effects of stress depending on when in life it is experienced: a newly hatched chicken that experienced stress suffers quite different effects from it than a chicken that experiences the exact same amount of stress ten or fifteen weeks later. This discrepancy is currently a key area of research for us.
Another of our major research areas is, in spite of the group's name, dogs. Dogs are the oldest domesticated species, descending from wild wolves, and have evolved a set of unique behaviour strategies to cope with the stress of life: they use humans as emotional referents and companions. An unprecedented richness in breed diversity and behaviour makes the dog a valuable model for studying genetic and epigenetic mechanisms in behaviour.
Our research group is unique in the world in the broadness of the facilities we have available. We control our research from the point of breeding and hatching the animals, through infancy in the university's own chicken coops, to our behaviour laboratories equipped to handle advanced behaviour recording, to the physiology laboratories equipped for various types of surgery and measurements on animals. And all of this is combined with a world class molecular genetics lab.
Our AVIAN group is also one of the few labs in the world which keep a breeding population of red junglefowl, the wild ancestor to the chicken. Thus we are able to do comparisons directly to a wild ancestor, as well as breed crosses between modern chickens and their wild ancestors for genetic experiments.
National and International Research Collaborations
I have made it a point to always maintain cordial relations with numerous researchers and over the years I have managed to build a very extensive research network. Together with Professor Linda Keeling at SLU, I currently coordinate the Center of Excellence in Animal Welfare Science, a nationwide research network. The AVIAN group is part of Linköpings University's System Neurobiology Network and we have a number of ongoing collaborations with researchers at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. This has generated a number of emerging projects towards human applications and given us unique inroads towards human-centric research.
- Professor Linda Keeling, SLU – animal welfare science.
- Professor Leif Andersson, Uppsala University – genetics and genomics.
- Professor Jonas Bergquist, Uppsala University – hormone measurements.
- Professor Elena Jazin, Uppsala University – behaviour epigenetics.