Directions for teachers:

Ask students to read the Science News article “Prairie voles can find partners just fine without the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin” or any other Science News article that includes  research that used CRISPR gene-editing technology. A version of the article “Voles don’t need oxytocin to bond” appears in the February 25, 2023 issue of Science News. Then students should pair up and discuss the first set of questions with their partners.

1. What is oxytocin, and what role does it play in the lives of humans and other mammals?

Oxytocin is a hormone, and scientists have found that it influences social behavior in humans and other animals.

2. Which research findings described in this article made scientists think oxytocin was required for prairie voles to form pair-bonds and mate for life?

Scientists had shown in previous studies that prairie voles did not form pair-bonds when they were given drugs that blocked oxytocin’s ability to act.

3. Which new technology did biologist Devanand Manoli and his colleagues use in their prairie vole study? How did the technology alter the prairie voles and allow the researchers to study their pair-bonding behavior?

The scientists used CRISPR technology to genetically modify the prairie voles. CRISPR technology can be used to turn off particular genes with the help of molecules from bacteria. Researchers used CRISPR to create prairie voles without functioning oxytocin receptors to allow them to study the behavior of prairie voles that don’t experience oxytocin signaling in the brain.

4. How did the modified prairie voles behave?

The animals formed pair-bonds without needing oxytocin.

5. How did the new study differ from past studies on oxytocin and prairie vole behavior? How did using a new technology produce surprising results?

In past studies, drugs were used to block oxytocin in adult prairie voles whose brains had previous exposure to oxytocin. Using CRISPR made it possible to make prairie voles whose brains had never been exposed to oxytocin. Because the prairie voles in earlier studies appeared to depend on oxytocin to form pair-bonds, the scientists expected the prairie voles without functioning receptors to fail at forming bonds. Using CRISPR made it possible to show a surprising result: Prairie voles do not depend on oxytocin to form pair-bonds.

6. What are possible next steps in the research on pair-bonding in voles?

Scientists want to continue studying oxytocin’s role in pair-bonding. Researchers also are looking at the roles played by other hormones, including vasopressin.

Optional extension: Using the main scientific finding from the article, outline the scientists’ claim, evidence and reasoning to support their finding.
Claim: Oxytocin is not necessary for voles to form pair-bonds.
Evidence: After using CRISPR to remove the receptor for oxytocin, voles still formed pair-bonds.

Reasoning: The fact that prairie voles formed pair-bonds without the influence of oxytocin suggests that something else in prairie voles’ biology is influencing that behavior, and the biological factors that influence whether animals form pair-bonds is more complicated than previously thought.