The order in a billion sequences

Genes, Brain and Behavior
May 7, 2004

Genes, Brain and Behavior aims "to publish top-quality research in behavioural and neural genetics in its broadest sense". Its emphasis is "on the analysis of the behavioural and neural phenotypes under consideration, the unifying theme being the genetic approach as a tool to increase our understanding of these phenotypes". Now in its third year, the " G2B ", as its editor Wim Crusio calls it, is published by the International Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society.

In an editorial published as the journal entered its second year, Crusio discusses the issue of the potential disadvantages to authors of publishing their work in new, and by implication, not widely read journals. Crusio is right to raise this concern: so fierce is the research assessment exercise-driven ratings game of UK academics that they now often worry more about a journal's statistics than whether it is the most appropriate place to publish their work.

Crusio is reassuring: G2B published quarterly in its first year but submission rates went up sufficiently to move to bimonthly publication by the second year. This has allowed the journal to keep rejection rates at a moderate figure of about 40 per cent while still maintaining quality. G2B also benefits from its publisher's electronic publishing service Online Early, which ensures that all accepted papers swiftly become available to anyone with an internet connection. Combine this with the publisher's assertion that the journal is available in 1,400 libraries and pharmaceutical companies and this should go some way towards allaying authors' worries.

And what of content? The research field of behavioural genetics has been around for at least three decades. Behavioural geneticists seek the genetic basis of behaviour, especially social behaviour. They have for almost their entire history been handicapped by a lack of genes on which to base their research. Few people outside genetical studies can appreciate how monumental in terms of producing raw data the genomics revolution has been.

It is not an exaggeration to say that there was little more than a handful of gene sequences available just ten years ago. Now GenBank, the mother of all genetic databases, contains many billions of sequences for researchers to investigate.

Combine the explosive growth in the raw data on genes with equally explosive advances in the study of the expression and function of those genes and one begins to see why G2B arose. Gene knock-out studies, microarray expression studies, and RNAi interference have all featured in the journal. On a mathematical level, the journal has reported on quantitative trait loci mapping and heritability studies.

These technologies and methods are easily hitched to more phenomenological questions. A sampling includes sex-differences research, gene expression and over-expression as a way of studying a gene's function, inherited disorders (including Down's syndrome and autism), affective disorders, (including schizophrenia, medical models of alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease and mouse models of the genetic basis of behaviour). Some old topics of the behavioural learning theorists are still around and now wearing new, more genetical, clothes. Thus, there are articles on the molecular basis of learning, aversive conditioning and circadian rhythms. In addition to its original articles, the journal features commentaries, meeting reports and debates, with whole issues or parts of issues devoted to a single topic: G2B is doing all the things one would expect of an organised society looking for an official publication to promote its concerns.

Where does G2B go from here and will it survive in an era of library impecuniosity? To answer the second question, its success so far probably gives a good indication of its survival prospects; and Blackwell's science arm has an enviable reputation for spotting promising areas. The first question is more difficult. There is no sense that the journal is narrowing its scope to focus on a particular subset of issues. One is reminded of the social-science journals, especially the social psychology journals, before evolutionary psychology invaded the field in the late 1980s. Some would say that evolutionary theory has added only "just so" storytelling, but there is little doubt that it reinvigorated a field that had grown stale.

In the journal's first issue, Crusio sets out his hopes for a "new synthesis" joining genes, brains and behaviour. This is a good sign but perhaps a tall order, and I think it fair to say that no such synthesis has yet emerged. Indeed, it may be unrealistic to expect one, as it is not even clear what form a synthesis could take. Genes, brains and behaviour are all linked, of course, but not exclusively so. Instead, they should properly be seen as targets for natural selection along with other aspects of behaviour, physiology and morphology. Their wider synthetic home is the field of development: the ontogenetic study of how organisms play out the instructions in their genes to emerge, grow and survive in the environment to which they are adapted. At a more microscopic level, the emerging fields of proteomics, gene regulation and gene networks will be the building blocks of any real synthetic advances in understanding ontogeny.

If this analysis is correct, G2B could find itself at a disadvantage in attracting the truly synthetic articles, which may seek a more natural home in journals of development and genetics or in the highest-impact scientific journals. This might then have a trickle-down effect on the empirical articles the journal receives. G2B 's infancy has been promising and serves to remind us that the pace of scientific research has so quickened that there is still room for yet more journals. Now, as the journal enters its juvenile years, it will need to develop themes and features that make it both an attractive place to publish and an essential read for scientists.

Mark Pagel is professor of evolutionary biology, Reading University.

Genes, Brain and Behavior

Editor - Wim E. Crusio
Publisher - Blackwell. Six times a year
Price - Institutions £222.00
ISSN - 1601 1848 (print) 1601 183X (online)

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