The penetrance of an epigenetic trait in mice is progressively yet reversibly increased by selection and environment

Jennifer E. Cropley, Thurston H. Y. Dang, David I. K. Martin, Catherine M. Suter


Natural selection acts on variation that is typically assumed to be genetic in origin. But epigenetic mechanisms, which are interposed between the genome and its environment, can create diversity independently of genetic variation. Epigenetic states can respond to environmental cues, and can be heritable, thus providing a means by which environmentally responsive phenotypes might be selectable independent of genotype. Here, we have tested the possibility that environment and selection can act together to increase the penetrance of an epigenetically determined phenotype. We used isogenic Avy mice, in which the epigenetic state of the Avy allele is sensitive to dietary methyl donors. By combining methyl donor supplementation with selection for a silent Avy allele, we progressively increased the prevalence of the associated phenotype in the population over five generations. After withdrawal of the dietary supplement, the shift persisted for one generation but was lost in subsequent generations. Our data provide the first demonstration that selection for a purely epigenetic trait can result in cumulative germline effects in mammals. These results present an alternative to the paradigm that natural selection acts only on genetic variation, and suggest that epigenetic changes could underlie rapid adaptation of species in response to natural environmental fluctuations.

  • Received December 18, 2011.
  • Accepted January 17, 2012.
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