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Bio prof wins NSF grant to study maternal behavior

By Chris Lydgate ’90 on July 08, 2015 02:25 PM

Prof. Renn will investigate the neural circuitry of mouth-brooding fish.

Prof. Suzy Renn [bio] has won a $618,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate a striking example of maternal behavior—voluntary starvation among African cichlid fish.

This species of fish exhibits a bizarre form of child-care known as mouth-brooding, in which females raise their eggs in their mouths for two weeks until the embryos are big enough to swim. During this time, the mothers undergo voluntary starvation rather than open their mouths and allow their fry to come to harm.

Prof. Renn will examine the neural circuitry involved in regulating this behavior, which could shed light on the evolution of maternal instincts and deepen our understanding of metabolic and feeding disorders.

Prof. Renn and her students will collaborate with Prof. Karen Maruska at Louisiana State University.

The grant is funded through the Behavioral Systems panel within the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems at the NSF and will cover four years of research at Reed and collaborative exchanges with the team at LSU.

Reed students will use immunohistochemistry to identify patterns and changes in various neurotransmitter systems. They will also quantify neuronal activity in specific brain regions and specific cell types using a novel technique to mark active protein production in neurons. Using genome-wide studies of gene expression, they will describe gene expression patterns in specific brain regions as well as in the peripheral metabolic signaling systems. Finally, in vivo neural recordings will be used to determine the sensitivity to the stimulus of food versus the stimulus of eggs or fry in the mother's mouth at different stages in the brooding cycle.