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A molecular basis of innate and learned behavior

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The pioneering ethological research of Lorenz and Tinbergen showed that animals produce characteristic behavioural responses when exposed to different environments or changing circumstances. They identified the importance of innate patterns of behavior, or instincts, for animal survival and speculated that the mechanisms for the instinctive responses were Œstored¹ in the genome. The number and types of instinctive responses that an animal can produce determines their capacity to occupy a diverse range of environments. It is therefore of great importance to identify the mechanisms of individual instinctive responses as well as the repertoire or overall set of responses. The molecular mechanisms underlying the repertoire of innate responses is Unknown.

Pavlov also identified the importance of instinctive responses (referred to as unconditional responses) and demonstrated that they could be modified (conditioned) by repeated exposure to the stimulus or association with another stimulus. To what extent instinct and learning are related processes remains a major question. Over 50 years ago, Lorenz suggested that the resolution of this question would require knowledge of the underlying mechanisms of both to be described. Although our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of learning has advanced considerably in the last 20 years, the absence of a clear model for instinctive responses to the environment leaves this fundamental psychological question unanswered. We hypothesized that there could be a general molecular mechanism that unified instinctive and learned responses that also explained how a broad repertoire of instinctive responses was generated. Data testing this hypothesis will be presented.

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