Aggressive behaviour associated with territorial defence is widespread and has fitness consequences. However, excess aggression can interfere with other important biological functions such as immunity and energy homeostasis. How the expression of complex behaviours such as aggression is regulated in the brain has long intrigued ethologists, but has only recently become amenable for molecular dissection in non-model organisms. We investigated the transcriptomic response to territorial intrusion in four brain regions in breeding male threespined sticklebacks using expression microarrays and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR). Each region of the brain had a distinct genomic response to a territorial challenge. We identified a set of genes that were upregulated in the diencephalon and downregulated in the cerebellum and the brain stem. Cis-regulatory network analysis suggested transcription factors that regulated or co-regulated genes that were consistently regulated in all brain regions and others that regulated gene expression in opposing directions across brain regions. Our results support the hypothesis that territorial animals respond to social challenges via transcriptional regulation of genes in different brain regions. Finally, we found a remarkably close association between gene expression and aggressive behaviour at the individual level. This study sheds light on the molecular mechanisms in the brain that underlie the response to social challenges.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4929-4938
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1749
StatePublished - 2012


  • Aggression
  • Gasterosteus aculeatus
  • Gene expression regulation
  • Microarray
  • Sociogenomics
  • Stickleback

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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