Born to Be Wild?

Maybe not. Just because something is written in our genetic code doesn’t mean our body will read it. /

Some mice are born to be bad mothers. It’s in their genes.

Most mice are maternally inclined, licking and grooming their pups and arching their backs to encourage nursing. But not BALB/c mice, an albino strain that’s frequently used in cancer and immunology tests. Famously aggressive, these mice have a genetic mutation that makes them as likely to step on or even bite their young as groom them.

Enter Francis Champagne and her colleagues, who found a remarkable and lasting change in mothering behavior among a particular group of BALB/c mice, based more on nurture than nature.

Mice usually raise their young alone. But when these researchers encouraged a kind of group parenting involving both healthy mothers and some mice with the BALB/c mutation, something strange happened. The BALB/c mice seemed to observe and learn nurturing mothering techniques from their roommates.

That’s impressive. But not as impressive as what Champagne discovered when the BALB/c pups were allowed to grow up under the improved care of their own mothers. Eventually this generation was mated and permitted to parent their own young alone. Despite their genetics, these second-generation mouse mothers licked their young, groomed them, and displayed arched-back nursing. And so did their pups once they grew up.

In other words, Champagne and her research team determined that a caring upbringing beat the BALB/c genetics in a way that lasted for generations.

While there could certainly be psychological or sociological explanations for some of the improvements in these mothering techniques, the team’s findings drift into a new area of research called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.

Every cell in a mouse has the ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 37 / December 10, 2015
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 37: Children question God, how you beat your DNA, and keeping Creation together. /

  2. Two Hundred Questions a Day

    Childlike faith keeps probing, sometimes impolitely. /

  3. The Creator Is Closer

    I too often forget that God sustains all he has made. /

  4. Ode to an Encyclopedia

    “Questing Beast of blue and gold, you were my companion” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 37: Links to amazing stuff.

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