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Project: The role of DNA methylation in locust swarming behaviour

2019-01-01 – 2022-12-31


All organisms can adjust their form and physiology to suit changes in their environment.
Economically devastating locust swarms result from an extreme type of such “phenotypic plasticity”.
Depending on population density, the locust genome can manifest as one of two very different
phenotypic outcomes: a lone-living “solitarious phase” or a swarming “gregarious phase”.
Gregarious behaviour can arise within hours of crowding, and is soon consolidated to keep locust
swarms together. Recent work strongly implicates epigenetic changes in neural DNA methylation in
this consolidation.
We aim to unravel the role of DNA methylation in both the consolidation and the loss of gregarious
behaviour in desert locusts. Our major innovation lies in bridging two seemingly unrelated research
challenges: elucidating how social experiences accumulate over a lifetime to affect behaviour; and
finding novel ways for disbanding locust swarms by destabilising consolidated swarming behaviour.
This multidisciplinary proposal combines behavioural analyses with transcriptomics, methylomics,
confocal brain imaging, advanced bioinformatics and manipulation of the methylation patterns to:
1) identify the genes that undergo changes in DNA methylation and expression upon crowding; 2)
determine whether crowding and isolation engage the same molecular mechanisms; 3) compare
DNA methylation between locusts and other organisms; and 4) destabilise the onset and
maintenance of the swarming phenotype.

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