Projects per year
The ability to learn and form memory has been demonstrated in various animal species, ranging from relatively simple invertebrates, such as snails and insects, to more complex vertebrate species, including birds and mammals. The opportunity to acquire new skills or to adapt behaviour through learning is an obvious benefit. However, memory formation is also costly: it can be maladaptive when unreliable associations are formed and the process of memory formation can be energetically costly. The balance between costs and benefits determines if learning and memory formation are beneficial to an animal or not. Variation in learning abilities and memory formation between species is thought to reflect species-specific differences in ecology.
This thesis focused on variation in the number of trials required to form long-term memory (LTM). LTM is considered the most stable and durable type of memory, but also the most costly, because it requires protein synthesis. Many animal species require multiple learning experiences, which are spaced in time, to form LTM. This allows re-evaluation of information before an animal invests in costly LTM. There is, however, variation in the number of trials that animal species require to induce LTM formation. A number of insect species, including a number of parasitic wasp species, form LTM after only a single learning experience. Parasitic wasps can learn odours that guide them towards suitable hosts for their offspring, so-called oviposition learning. Substantial differences in LTM formation are observed among closely related species of parasitic wasps, which provides excellent opportunities for comparative studies. Both ecological and genetic factors involved in variation in LTM formation have been studied in this project. A multidisciplinary approach is essential to understand the evolution of variation in LTM formation, because the interaction between genes and environment shapes learning and memory formation.
LTM formation was studied in closely related species of the genus Nasonia. These small parasitic wasps (~2 mm in length) lay their eggs in various species of fly pupae and differences in the ecology of the four known species of this genus have been described. A high-throughput method for olfactory conditioning was developed in which the wasps associated an odour, either chocolate or vanilla, with the reward of a host. A T-maze olfactometer was designed for high-throughput testing of memory retention. Using these methods, variation in memory retention was observed between three Nasonia species. Both N. vitripennis and N. longicornis form a long-lasting memory after a single conditioning trial, which lasts at least 5 days. Nasonia giraulti, on the other hand, lost its memory after 1 to 2 days after a single conditioning trial. Further studies focused on the difference between N. vitripennis and N. giraulti, which was most pronounced. By inhibiting LTM with transcription and translation inhibitors, it was confirmed that N. vitripennis forms this type of memory after a single conditioning trial. LTM is visible 4 days after conditioning in N. vitripennis. Nasonia giraulti does not form LTM after a single conditioning trial. Long-lasting memory is only formed after two trials, with a 4-hour interval between them. This difference in LTM formation makes N. vitripennis and N. giraulti excellent model species to study both ecological and genetic factors involved in this difference.
Ecological factors such as the value of the reward and the reliability of the learned association have been shown to affect memory formation in a number of animal species. A recent study on oviposition learning in two parasitic wasp species demonstrated that LTM formation depends on the host species, i.e. the reward offered during conditioning. LTM was formed when a host with a higher quality was offered, but not when a host of lower quality was offered. The effect of host quality on memory retention of N. vitripennis and N. giraulti was tested. Either a large host, Calliphora vomitoria, a medium-sized host, Lucilia sericata, or a small host, Musca domestica, was offered during conditioning. These hosts were observed to differ significantly in their quality, i.e. in the number of parasitoid offspring that emerged and the size of the offspring. There was, however, no effect of host species on memory retention in either Nasonia species. These results suggest that host quality is not important for LTM formation in N. vitripennis and N. giraulti. This observation shows that ecological factors that are important for memory formation in one species may not be important for another species.
The genetic basis of memory formation is highly conserved among distant animal phyla. A large number of genes involved in LTM formation have been identified in genetic model organisms, including fruit flies, honeybees, the California sea hare, mice and rats, and the zebra finch.Genetic factors responsible for natural variation in LTM formation between species are currently unknown, however. Two approaches were used to study genetic factors responsible for the difference in LTM formation between N. vitripennis and N. giraulti. The first approach took advantage of the unique possibility to interbreed Nasonia species. Hybrid offspring of N. vitripennis and N. giraulti did not form LTM after a single conditioning trial, similar to N. giraulti. The dominant LTM phenotype of N. giraulti was then backcrossed into the genetic background of N. vitripennis for up to 5 generations. Using a genotyping microarray analysis and subsequent confirmation experiments, we detected two genomic regions (quantitative trait loci – QTLs) that both reduce long-lasting memory, but not completely remove this memory. These results indicate that multiple QTLs regulate the difference in LTM formation between the two Nasonia species. Concluding, our approach has provided insights in the genomic basis of a naturally occurring difference in LTM formation between two species. Excellent opportunities for fine-scale QTL mapping are available for the genus Nasonia. This will allow identification of decisive regulatory mechanisms involved in LTM formation that are located in the two genomic regions detected in this study.
The second approach took advantage of next-generation sequencing techniques that allow transcriptome-wide studies of gene expression levels. RNA from heads of N. vitripennis and N. giraulti was collected before conditioning and immediately, 4 hours, or 24 hours after conditioning. This RNA was sequenced strand-specifically using HiSeq technology, which allows detection of sense and antisense transcripts. Various genes, from a number of different signalling pathways known to be involved in LTM formation, were uniquely differentially expressed after conditioning in N. vitripennis. These genes are likely involved in the ongoing process of LTM formation in this species. A number of other genes with a known role in LTM formation,including genes involved in dopamine synthesis and in the Ras-MAPK and PI3K signalling pathways, were uniquely differentially expressed in N. giraulti. These genes may have a role in a LTM inhibitory mechanism in this species. Antisense transcripts were detected for a number of known memory genes, which may indicate a role inregulation of transcription, alternative splicing, or translation. This study is the first to compare gene expression patterns after conditioning between two species that differ in LTM formation. The results provide promising candidate genes for future studies in which the regulation of these genes, the function of specific splice variants, and spatial expression patterns in the brain should be studied to understand how these genes are involved in the regulation of LTM formation.
Learning and memory formation have an important role in animal and human behaviour.Novel and valuable insights on both ecological and genetic factors responsible for variation in LTM formation have been revealed by the research presented in this thesis. Integrating ecological factors and genetic factors is essential, as genes are the level on which ecological factors can drive the evolution of variation in learning and memory formation. The genus Nasonia has offered excellent opportunities for ecological research as well as unique opportunities for studies on genomic and genetic factors, which were addressed by comparing closely related species that differ in memory formation. This thesis provides the basis for the identification of genomic differences responsible for the difference in memory formation between Nasonia species, but it also characterized the consequences of these genomic differences on gene expression. The genetic basis of learning and memory formation are highly conserved among distant animal species and insights from this thesis are likely applicable to other animal species and humans, as well.Altogether, these small parasitic wasps allow us to understand and value differences in memory formation.
|Qualification||Doctor of Philosophy|
|Award date||3 Jun 2014|
|Place of Publication||Wageningen|
|Publication status||Published - 2014|
- learning ability
- genetic factors
- animal ecology
- animal behaviour