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Open Access Research article

Evolution of a behavior-linked microsatellite-containing element in the 5' flanking region of the primate AVPR1A gene

Zoe R Donaldson123*, Fyodor A Kondrashov4, Andrea Putnam4, Yaohui Bai3, Tara L Stoinski5, Elizabeth AD Hammock6 and Larry J Young1237

Author Affiliations

1 Neuroscience Program, Emory University, Atlanta, USA

2 Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Emory University, Atlanta, USA

3 Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, Atlanta, USA

4 Division of Biological Sciences, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, USA

5 Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, USA

6 Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, Nashville, USA

7 Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University, Atlanta, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:180  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-180

Published: 23 June 2008

Abstract

Background

The arginine vasopressin V1a receptor (V1aR) modulates social cognition and behavior in a wide variety of species. Variation in a repetitive microsatellite element in the 5' flanking region of the V1aR gene (AVPR1A) in rodents has been associated with variation in brain V1aR expression and in social behavior. In humans, the 5' flanking region of AVPR1A contains a tandem duplication of two ~350 bp, microsatellite-containing elements located approximately 3.5 kb upstream of the transcription start site. The first block, referred to as DupA, contains a polymorphic (GT)25 microsatellite; the second block, DupB, has a complex (CT)4-(TT)-(CT)8-(GT)24 polymorphic motif, known as RS3. Polymorphisms in RS3 have been associated with variation in sociobehavioral traits in humans, including autism spectrum disorders. Thus, evolution of these regions may have contributed to variation in social behavior in primates. We examined the structure of these regions in six ape, six monkey, and one prosimian species.

Results

Both tandem repeat blocks are present upstream of the AVPR1A coding region in five of the ape species we investigated, while monkeys have only one copy of this region. As in humans, the microsatellites within DupA and DupB are polymorphic in many primate species. Furthermore, both single (lacking DupB) and duplicated alleles (containing both DupA and DupB) are present in chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) populations with allele frequencies of 0.795 and 0.205 for the single and duplicated alleles, respectively, based on the analysis of 47 wild-caught individuals. Finally, a phylogenetic reconstruction suggests two alternate evolutionary histories for this locus.

Conclusion

There is no obvious relationship between the presence of the RS3 duplication and social organization in primates. However, polymorphisms identified in some species may be useful in future genetic association studies. In particular, the presence of both single and duplicated alleles in chimpanzees provides a unique opportunity to assess the functional role of this duplication in contributing to variation in social behavior in primates. While our initial studies show no signs of directional selection on this locus in chimps, pharmacological and genetic association studies support a potential role for this region in influencing V1aR expression and social behavior.