Jenny Tung, Evolutionary Anthropologist and Geneticist | 2019 MacArthur Fellow


It turns out that how an animal’s day
goes, in terms of whether it has good or negative interactions with other animals
it lives with, can affect the types of cells in its body and the way that those
cells respond to things like bacteria, and viruses, and even the way that the
DNA is packaged inside the cells. My name is Jenny Tung, and I’m an evolutionary
anthropologist and biologist. I use the tools of genomics and evolutionary
biology and behavioral observation to understand why social interactions
between animals affect how well they do, how many babies they have, how long they
live, and their health during that process. Most of my work focuses on non-human
primates, animals that are fairly closely related to humans. One long-term aspect
of my research is on wild baboons. We’re actually watching up to the eighth
generation now of descendants of individuals who are in that original
population and that allows us to ask a lot of questions about how social
interactions influences things over the entire life course, and how things that
happen in early life actually turn out to be important even decades later.
It gives us direct insight into measures of what we call Darwinian fitness, so
fertility, and survival, and contributions to the next generation. If we all had asked about the sorts of adverse things that can happen to juvenile baboons — drought is
one of them, low social status, social isolation, and particularly loss of a
mother early in life — that those things too happen to predict dramatically
shorter lifespans. We do see some evidence that these kinds of effects are
not limited to a single generation, but actually have their echoes 30 years
later. I also study a population of rhesus macaques, which is another species
of monkey, also highly social, also, it turns out, very hierarchical. The work
that we do in captivity gives us an ability to tackle mechanism and
causality in a way that would be really hard in a natural population. We can
actually do some manipulations of the social environment and ask whether those
changes actually then drive downstream differences in the animal’s physiology
and, you know, how their genes are
regulated. Our data have provided some really strong evidence that there really
are these sort of direct reflections of our social interactions, even at a
molecular and cellular level. We know that, in humans, for instance, that a lot
of early life adversity, whether it’s familial or larger social adversity, has
these predictive effects in the long term and they influence rates of disease,
and they influence lifespan. We’ve been talking more with researchers who focus
on human populations, including human populations in the United States, and
we’d like to do some explicitly comparative work where we take the same
kinds of measurements, collect similar kinds of data where possible, and ask
whether in fact what we’re seeing in the monkeys looks like what you see in
humans.

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