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Yellowstone Wolf: Project Citizen Science

Recent research

Investigation of gene expression variation within the Yellowstone National Park gray wolf population using RNA-sequencing

Research contact: Pauline Charruau

Project background

Genes are the molecular entities on which evolution operates. At the scale of an individual, it is unlikely that the modification of genes themselves can serve as a first line of response to sudden environmental and social change. However, genes express information (RNA) that is used to synthesize functional products such as proteins. Modifications to the intensity of this gene expression might allow an individual to rapidly respond to environmental changes, potentially affecting their reproductive success and survival.

With the advent of genomic sequencing technology, it is now possible to examine gene expression variation for thousands of genes, in known individuals from natural populations using RNA-sequencing. Wild gray wolves (Canis lupus) live in social packs and their position as a top predator makes them more sensitive to ecosystem disturbances. Furthermore, the gray wolf is a model species for studying population-wide gene expression in a natural context, as its closest relative, the domestic dog (C. l. familiaris), has a well-annotated genome. Here, we conducted an exploratory analysis measuring the gene expression from 27 wild gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park, USA. In this project we aimed to: i) assess genome-wide gene expression variation in an easily accessible tissue, such as whole blood; and ii) identify molecular pathways and individual genes for which expression is associated with important environmental or demographic factors, specifically social rank, age, and sex.

Our preliminary results indicate that traits associated with age have a strong effect on gene expression patterns. Most of the genes, for which the expression level is significantly affected by age, are involved in immune functions. This project will help to define the mechanisms of gene expression response in wolves and will evaluate of the potential of RNA-sequencing as a tool for conservation.