Magazine article Science News

Ancient Gene Takes Grooming in Hand. (Science News of the Week)

Magazine article Science News

Ancient Gene Takes Grooming in Hand. (Science News of the Week)

Article excerpt

All sorts of animals groom themselves regularly, which keeps them clean and healthy. However, mice with an alteration in one of the genes that orchestrate body development lose their grip on grooming, a new study finds.

These mice bite and lick themselves so hard and so often that they end up with bald patches and open sores, according to Joy M. Greer and Mario R. Capecchi, both geneticists at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Moreover, the same genetically altered rodents groom cage mates just as aggressively.

The mice have a mutated version of one of the homeobox, or Hox, genes, which scientists have implicated in embryo development. The new finding offers a potential avenue for exploring the biological roots of trichotillomania, a rare condition in which people tear out their hair, as well as some of the repetitive cleaning behaviors classed as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the researchers conclude in the Jan. 3 NEURON.

"This particular Hox gene may regulate the amount of grooming performed by an animal," Capecchi says. "So far, we see no other unusual behaviors in mice with this mutation."

The study adds to emerging evidence that Hox genes, which are largely the same in all vertebrate species, influence biology and behavior in a surprisingly wide variety of ways, he adds. It makes sense, in his view, that at least one of these evolutionarily ancient genes influences the comparably ancient grooming practices of vertebrates.

Greer and Capecchi altered one of the two copies of the Hoxb8 gene in individual mice from an inbred line. This enabled the scientists to compare these animals with others in the line, which shared the same set of genes except for the critical Hoxb8 mutation.

As adults, genetically modified mice displayed bald patches and skin lesions on their bodies. …

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