The potential of transcriptomics to understand social behavior

Rapid advances in RNA sequencing technology (or RNA-seq) for analyzing entire transcriptomes of desired tissue samples, or even of single cells at scale, have revolutionized biology in the past decade. Increasing accessibility and falling costs are making it possible to address many problems in biology that were once considered intractable, including the study of various social behaviors. RNA-seq is opening new avenues to understand long standing questions on the molecular basis of behavioral plasticity and individual variation in the expression of a behavior. As whole transcriptomes are examined, it has become possible to make unbiased discoveries of underlying mechanisms with little or no necessity to predict genes involved in advance. However, researchers need to be aware of technical limitations and have to make specific decisions when applying RNA-seq to study social behavior. Yale-NUS College researchers provide a perspective on the applications of RNA-seq and experimental design considerations for behavioral scientists who are unfamiliar with the technology but are considering using it in their research.

Flowchart of challenges and key considerations in experimental design


In designing a RNA-seq study, researchers must resolve challenges relating to social behavior studies and decide whether single-cell RNA-seq or bulk RNA-seq will best achieve the study goals. Given the technical challenges when faced with scarcity of RNA samples or quality, and cost constraints, researchers should consider the number of individual samples to pool, conducting a pilot experiment, and including a validation assay to ensure valid data from a RNA-seq experiment.

Lim WK, Mathuru AS. (2020) Design, challenges, and the potential of transcriptomics to understand social behavior. Current Zoology [Epub ahead of print]. [article]

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