Tung received her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Duke University, and after completing her post-doctoral degree at the University of Chicago, she returned to Duke where she now works as an associate professor of evolutionary biology and anthropology. . In 2019, Tung received a MacArthur Fellowship, more commonly known as the “Genie Grant”.
Tung studies the intersection of social behavior and the genome, a field of anthropology and biology that originated over 100 years ago from research on our own species, but has become increasingly relevant in current national debates on accessibility to health care and generational trauma, particularly in relation to the black community.
At the start of his presentation, Tung highlighted four main questions guiding his research: How do social interactions alter the function of the genome? how do social processes alter the genetic structure of entire populations rather than individual individuals? how might changes in genome function alter social roles; and how could genetic variation shape social behavior?
Unfortunately, researchers cannot select a random group of humans and place them in conditions of social isolation or change their social status. Tung therefore works with the rhesus macaque, a species of monkey that shares about 93% of its genes with humans. They are also on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species – the world’s most comprehensive source of information on the global conservation status of animal, fungal and plant species, according to their website. Web – due to their wide distribution and large populations.
Tung and his team of researchers from Duke University, Emory University and the University of Chicago, are studying monkeys in captivity where it is possible to take individuals who do not know each other and have no social history, and placing them in groups at different intervals, manipulating the order of introduction to the group. Tung and his team found that individuals who entered a group earlier rose to a higher rank in the group’s social hierarchy. Conversely, those who entered later had lower social status. The order of introduction was found to be the best predictor of subsequent dominance rank.
Tung and his team created several groups and allowed social hierarchies to develop, then placed all alphas in one group, all betas in another group, and so on, allowing new hierarchies to develop. By observing the groups, Tung was able to calculate the precise hierarchical ranking of each individual using the Elo scoring system, which is famous for calculating the relative skill levels of chess players.
Once the hierarchy of all the samples in the laboratory was established, the researchers wanted to know how the monkey’s cells would react to immunological threats and how their social rank could affect their immune function. Because they didn’t actually want to inject immune stimulants directly into the animals, they used a technique used in human studies where researchers take a sample of blood from individuals and mix the sample with a stimulant and cell culture medium. to stimulate an acute stress response. in cells. That way, they can analyze the gene response in the sample rather than exposing all of the animals to this acute stress response.
The stimulant they used has two clear downstream pathways that induce two different gene expressions in the cell. They discovered that the type of gene expression exhibited by an individual depended on their social rank. The cells of lower ranked individuals experienced an inflammatory response, while higher ranked individuals experienced an antiviral immune response.
Tung then researched how the history of fluctuations in social status might still impact this gene expression. His team found that individuals who fell from a lower rank to a high rank were not affected by the change in social status, but those who fell from a high status to a lower one were greatly affected by their new status. current.
The monkeys Tung and his team were looking for are adult specimens that no longer thrive, and yet they still suffered these strong effects of residual history, showing that the baggage of social history can affect gene expression up to ‘see you a year later. Long Tung and his team researched this set of monkeys.
Tung’s research increases the credibility of social justice arguments and creates more tangible evidence to support efforts to validate generational trauma. Readers interested in learning more about Tung’s research can email Kristy Gonyer to access all of the Biology Department’s recorded seminars.