Though the research only applies to mice, the same gene also exists in humans. Yesterday Azim Surani, a member of the team that discovered it, said: "It's possible that in humans mutations in this gene could affect maternal behaviour." But he added that in humans the effects, which might manifest themselves as postnatal depression, could be eased by our social ability to talk to and support each other.
The research, at the Wellcome Institute in Cambridge and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, found that mice with mutated copies of the gene, known as "Mest", neglected their young after birth, failed to clean them, were less good as nest-builders and were slow to fetch their young back to the nest if they strayed.
The effect was that most of the mice born to Mest-deficient mothers died, which would mean that in evolutionary terms the gene is important for survival. That means it is "highly conserved", so that mutations are unlikely to be able to propagate in the species because they limit the chances of the young surviving.
The importance of mothering, and genes which program it, would also explain why both mice and humans have copies of versions of the gene. "Knowing that all this could come from one gene is dramatic," said Dr Surani.
The Cambridge team, reporting in today's edition of the journal Nature Genetics, found it is the father's copy of the gene that determines how good a mother the daughter mouse will grow up to be.Reuse content