Love at first sight is a magical, mysterious thing. Unless you are prairie vole that is. Then, if the results of a new study hold up, it is just a few chemical groups scattered around a couple of different genes.
Now calling this love may be stretching things as these are rodents and not people. Still, prairie voles are one of the few mammals that mates for life (click here for a list of some other animals that do the same thing). And what we have learned about the genetics behind their monogamy has turned out to possibly explain some men’s cheating ways.
It will be interesting to see if what they’ve learned about prairie vole partner selection can translate to people too. Undoubtedly love is more complex in people although maybe turning up these genes at the right time is a key component in becoming smitten.
Love in a prairie vole starts with finding a partner they like. The two then mate and the deal is sealed...they are monogamous partners. This process is called partner preference.
Cozying up to and then mating with a partner causes two genes, the oxytocin receptor (oxtr) and vasopressin V1a receptor (avpr1a) genes, to get more active in the brain of a prairie vole. When the researchers looked closely, they found that this was because acetyl groups had been slapped onto nearby histones.
The DNA of plants and animals (and lots of other beasts) is packaged around little protein spools called histones. Besides letting cells like ours cram six feet of DNA into their tiny nuclei, this packaging also helps to control which genes are on and to what levels.