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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Mutations in many genes affect aggressive behavior in Drosophila melanogaster

Alexis C Edwards125, Liesbeth Zwarts4, Akihiko Yamamoto23, Patrick Callaerts4 and Trudy FC Mackay12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Genetics, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA

2 W. M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA

3 Department of Biology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA

4 Laboratory of Developmental Genetics, VIB-PRJ8 & Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Center for Human Genetics, Leuven, Belgium

5 Current address: Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Psychiatry, Richmond, VA, USA

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BMC Biology 2009, 7:29  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-7-29

Published: 11 June 2009



Aggressive behavior in animals is important for survival and reproduction. Identifying the underlying genes and environmental contexts that affect aggressive behavior is important for understanding the evolutionary forces that maintain variation for aggressive behavior in natural populations, and to develop therapeutic interventions to modulate extreme levels of aggressive behavior in humans. While the role of neurotransmitters and a few other molecules in mediating and modulating levels of aggression is well established, it is likely that many additional genetic pathways remain undiscovered. Drosophila melanogaster has recently been established as an excellent model organism for studying the genetic basis of aggressive behavior. Here, we present the results of a screen of 170 Drosophila P-element insertional mutations for quantitative differences in aggressive behavior from their co-isogenic control line.


We identified 59 mutations in 57 genes that affect aggressive behavior, none of which had been previously implicated to affect aggression. Thirty-two of these mutants exhibited increased aggression, while 27 lines were less aggressive than the control. Many of the genes affect the development and function of the nervous system, and are thus plausibly relevant to the execution of complex behaviors. Others affect basic cellular and metabolic processes, or are mutations in computationally predicted genes for which aggressive behavior is the first biological annotation. Most of the mutations had pleiotropic effects on other complex traits. We characterized nine of these mutations in greater detail by assessing transcript levels throughout development, morphological changes in the mushroom bodies, and restoration of control levels of aggression in revertant alleles. All of the P-element insertions affected the tagged genes, and had pleiotropic effects on brain morphology.


This study reveals that many more genes than previously suspected affect aggressive behavior, and that these genes have widespread pleiotropic effects. Given the conservation of aggressive behavior among different animal species, these are novel candidate genes for future study in other animals, including humans.