Behavioral Genetic Toolkits: Toward the Evolutionary Origins of Complex Phenotypes

C. C. Rittschof, G. E. Robinson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review

41 Scopus citations


The discovery of toolkit genes, which are highly conserved genes that consistently regulate the development of similar morphological phenotypes across diverse species, is one of the most well-known observations in the field of evolutionary developmental biology. Surprisingly, this phenomenon is also relevant for a wide array of behavioral phenotypes, despite the fact that these phenotypes are highly complex and regulated by many genes operating in diverse tissues. In this chapter, we review the use of the toolkit concept in the context of behavior, noting the challenges of comparing behaviors and genes across diverse species, but emphasizing the successes in identifying genetic toolkits for behavior; these successes are largely attributable to the creative research approaches fueled by advances in behavioral genomics. We have two general goals: (1) to acknowledge the groundbreaking progress in this field, which offers new approaches to the difficult but exciting challenge of understanding the evolutionary genetic basis of behaviors, some of the most complex phenotypes known, and (2) to provide a theoretical framework that encompasses the scope of behavioral genetic toolkit studies in order to clearly articulate the research questions relevant to the toolkit concept. We emphasize areas for growth and highlight the emerging approaches that are being used to drive the field forward. Behavioral genetic toolkit research has elevated the use of integrative and comparative approaches in the study of behavior, with potentially broad implications for evolutionary biologists and behavioral ecologists alike.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGenes and Evolution, 2016
EditorsVirginie Orgogozo
Number of pages48
StatePublished - 2016

Publication series

NameCurrent Topics in Developmental Biology
ISSN (Print)0070-2153

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors’ experimental work cited here was supported by grants from the Simons Foundation (SFLIFE 291812), the National Science Foundation (IOS-1256705), and the National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award (DP1 OD006416). We thank members of the NSF-funded Sociogenomics Research Coordination Network for helpful discussions about this topic, and Kim Hoke and Virginie Orgogozo for comments that improved this manuscript.


  • Behavioral genomics
  • Genetic toolkit
  • Novel genes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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