Major Urinary Proteins do not allow kin recognition in male mice

Urinary Proteins do not allow kin recognition. They seem to be expressed depending upon social context. (Photo: Kerstin Thonhauser/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Mice  1

Many studies have concluded that "Major urinary Proteins or MUPs provide a unique individual signature or ‘barcode’ and thereby control individual and kin recognition. Researchers from Vetmeduni Vienna now found evidence that directly refutes this hypothesis. They discovered that the MUP genes of wild house mice show a surprising lack of variability, and rather than providing a stable barcode, individuals dynamically regulate the number of MUP excreted depending upon social context. These findings contradict the widely assumed hypothesis that MUPs control kin recognition. The results were published in Scientific Reports and Molecular Biosystems.

The urine of house mice, unlike humans, contains large amounts of proteins, which are mainly major urinary proteins or MUPs. These proteins function to stabilize the release of volatile pheromones from urinary scent marks. MUP genes occur in a large cluster in mice, and there are 21 different MUP genes, whereas humans have only one MUP gene, which is no longer functional.

Until now, researchers have assumed that MUP genes in wild populations of mice were highly variable, and that MUP proteins provide a unique individual signature or ‘barcode’ that mediates individual and kin recognition. Studies to confirm this critical assumption have nevertheless been lacking. Researchers from the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology and Vetmeduni Vienna now analysed the MUP genes in the respective cluster as well as the proteins. Their findings directly challenge the MUP barcode hypothesis.

Kin recognition must be controlled by other mechanisms

They found unusually low genetic variation through the entire MUP cluster. “We initially wondered how natural selection could maintain high levels of variation of MUP genes, but now we have to explain the remarkable lack of variation. Because of the high sequence similarity or homology of different MUP genes, we were sceptical that they could simultaneously show high variability among individuals”, says last author Dustin Penn.

The team additionally discovered that conventional gel-based techniques do not separate different MUP proteins, which posed a difficult technical challenge for measuring the regulation of different proteins. New proteomic methods made it possible to identify the different MUPs expressed in individual urine samples over time. “Our results show that mice change the MUPs they produce depending upon a social context. The number of MUPs in the urine of male house mice is surprisingly dynamic.

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