Allelic variation of the COMT gene in a despotic primate society: A haplotype is related to cortisol excretion in Macaca fuscata

Lena Pflüger, Daria Gutleb, Hofer Martin, Martin Fieder, Bernard Wallner, Ralf Steinborn

Sequence variations in genes of the monoamine neurotransmitter system and their common function in human and non-human primate species are an ongoing issue of investigation. However, the COMT gene, coding for the catechol-O-methyltransferase, has not yet attracted much scientific attention regarding its functional role in non-human primates. Considering that a polymorphism of the human COMT gene affects the enzyme activity and cortisol level in response to a social stressor, this study investigated the impact of COMT on endocrine stress and behavioural parameters in Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata). The species exemplifies a despotic hierarchy in which males' social rank positions require an adaptation of behaviour strategies. During the mating period steroid secretion and the frequency of aggressive encounters between males increase. We addressed i) whether this species exhibits potential functional COMT variants, ii) whether these variants are associated with faecal cortisol excretion of males, iii) how they are distributed among different social rank positions and iv) whether they are associated with behavioural strategies during times of mate competition. By genotyping 26 males we identified three COMT haplotypes (HT), including a putative splice mutant (HT3). This variant was associated with increased cortisol excretion. Given the observed inverse correlation between cortisol and physical aggression, we assume that different COMT haplotypes may predispose individuals to pursue more or less aggressive strategies. How these gene-stress effects might favour a specific social role is discussed. Our study of non-invasive genotyping in combination with behavioural and endocrine parameters represents an important step towards the understanding of gene-stress effects in a hierarchically organised primate society.

Department of Evolutionary Anthropology
External organisation(s)
Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien
Hormones and Behavior
Publication date
Peer reviewed
Austrian Fields of Science 2012
106013 Genetics, 106051 Behavioural biology
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