Molecular mechanisms of phenotypic plasticity in Astatotilapia burtoni
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The ability of an animal to respond and adapt to stimuli is necessary for its survival and involves plasticity and coordination of multiple levels of biological organization, including behavior, tissue organization, hormones, and gene expression. Each of these levels of response is complex, and none of them responds to stimuli in isolation. Thus, to understand how each system responds, it is necessary to consider its role in the context of the entire organism. Here, I have used the African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni and its extraordinary phenotypic plasticity to investigate how animals respond to a change in social status from subordinate to dominant and attempted to integrate these multiple levels of biological response, as well as the roles of several candidate neuromodulators,. First, I have described how male A. burtoni become more aggressive and reproductive during their transition to dominance as well as increasing circulating levels of testosterone and estradiol and the histological organization of their testes. I then mapped the distribution of expression of two behaviorally relevant neuropeptides, arginine vasotocin and isotocin, and their respective receptors, throughout the A. burtoni brain, and found that they were highly expressed in several brain areas important for social behavior and decision-making. I then investigated the role of arginine vasotocin in social status and behavior via pharmacological manipulation and qPCR, showing the importance of arginine vasotocin in controlling the transition to dominance. Lastly, I investigated the role of aromatase, testosterone, and estradiol in male A. burtoni, both in stable dominant males and in males as they transition to dominance, using pharmacological manipulation and quantitative radioactive in situ hybridization, illustrating that estradiol synthesis during dominance is dependent on aromatase activity and necessary for aggressive behavior.