March 16, 2013

Plants do use epigenetics to adapt to diverse environments

If you've ever grown plants that come from a distant land, you may be familiar with the fact that you may need an adaptive process of one or more generations to get the best of them. Oddly enough this time is often too short for genetic adaption to happen and sweep over, especially as most of the ill-adapted plants don't really die nor fail to reproduce (i.e. they are not too aggressively selected against). How does it happen then? Epigenetics may have the answer.

Robert J. Schmidt et al., Patterns of population epigenomic diversity. Nature 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1038/nature11968]


Natural epigenetic variation provides a source for the generation of phenotypic diversity, but to understand its contribution to such diversity, its interaction with genetic variation requires further investigation. Here we report population-wide DNA sequencing of genomes, transcriptomes and methylomes of wild Arabidopsis thaliana accessions. Single cytosine methylation polymorphisms are not linked to genotype. However, the rate of linkage disequilibrium decay amongst differentially methylated regions targeted by RNA-directed DNA methylation is similar to the rate for single nucleotide polymorphisms. Association analyses of these RNA-directed DNA methylation regions with genetic variants identified thousands of methylation quantitative trait loci, which revealed the population estimate of genetically dependent methylation variation. Analysis of invariably methylated transposons and genes across this population indicates that loci targeted by RNA-directed DNA methylation are epigenetically activated in pollen and seeds, which facilitates proper development of these structures.

From the body of the article:

Epiallele formation in the absence of genetic variation can result in phenotypic variation, which is most evident in the plant kingdom, as exemplified by the peloric and colorless non-ripening variants from Linaria vulgaris and Solanum lycopersicum, respectively6, 7. Although rates of spontaneous variation in DNA methylation and mutation can be decoupled in the laboratory8, 9, 10, 11, in natural settings, these two features of genomes co-evolve to create phenotypic diversity on which natural selection can act.


Similarly to the limited examples of pure epialleles (methylation variants that form independent of genetic variation), few examples of DNA methylation variants linked to genetic variants are known15, 16, 17.

And the 'Conclusion remarks' (emphasis is mine):

Natural epigenomic variation is widespread within A. thaliana, and the population-based epigenomics presented here has uncovered features of the DNA methylome that are not linked to underlying genetic variation, such as all forms of SMPs and CG-DMRs. However, C-DMRs have positional association decay patterns similar to linkage disequilibrium decay patterns for SNPs and in some cases are associated with genetic variants, but the majority of C-DMRs were not tested by association mapping due to low allele frequencies and could result from rare sequence variants. Our combined analyses of genetic and methylation variation did not uncover a correlation between major effect mutations and genes silenced by RdDM, suggesting that this pathway may target these genes for another purpose. This purpose could be to restrict expression from vegetative tissues similarly to transposons. Another possible purpose of being targeted by RdDM could be to coordinate expression specifically in pollen and in seed to ensure proper gametophytic and embryonic development. Animals also use small RNA-directed DNA methylation and heterochromatin formation mechanisms to maintain the epigenome of the germ line through the use of Piwi-interacting RNAs36. In both plants and animals these small RNAs are derived from the genome of companion cells, which are terminal in nature and can afford widespread reactivation of transposon and repeat sequences as they are not passed on to the next generation. Our study provides evidence that RdDM-targeted genes may have co-opted this transposon silencing mechanism to maintain their silenced state in vegetative tissues and transgenerationally, as well as to ensure proper expression important for pollen, seed and germ line development.

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