Epigenetic variation among natural populations of the South African sandhopper Talorchestia capensis
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Ecological epigenetics is gaining importance within the field of Molecular Ecology, because of its novel evolutionary implications. Linking population ecology to the variation in epigenetic profiles can help explain the effect of environmental conditions on phenotypic differences among populations. While epigenetic changes have largely been investigated through the examination of DNA methylation under laboratory conditions, there is a limited understanding of the extent of DNA methylation variation in wild populations. Assuming that epigenetic variation is important in nature, the conditions experienced by different conspecific populations should result in levels of DNA methylation that are independent of their genetic differentiation. To test this, we investigated levels of DNA methylation among populations of the sandhopper Talorchestia capensis that show phenotypic (physiological) differences in their response to environmental conditions, at the same time evaluating their genetic relationships. Given the high levels of inter-individual physiological variation observed within populations, we further hypothesised that inter-individual differences in methylation would be high. Levels of genetic and epigenetic variation were assessed within and among populations from five localities using the methylation sensitive amplified polymorphism technique. Population differentiation was higher for epigenetics than genetics, with no clear geographical pattern or any relation to biogeography. Likewise, individuals showed greater variability in their epigenetic than their genetic profiles. Four out of five populations showed significant negative relationships between epigenetic and genetic diversity. These results show uncoupling between epigenetic and genetic variation and suggest that: (1) epigenetics are more responsive to local, site-specific environmental conditions than genetics and (2) individual differences in epigenetic profiles drive phenotypic variation within (and most likely among) natural populations. Within populations, epigenetics could offer a level of phenotypic flexibility beyond genetic constraint that allows rapid responses to variable or unpredictable environments, potentially compensating for low genetic variability.
KeywordsDNA methylation Population epigenetics Ecological epigenetics MSAP Sandhoppers Phenotypic variation
The authors thank Ms Taryn Bodill from the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity for the analysis of the DNA fragments, and for providing valuable assistance during the laboratory work.
This paper was written under the framework of the project ‘‘CREC’’ [EU IRSES#247514]. The work is based upon research supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF) and the South African Research Chairs Initiative of the Department of Science and Technology.
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Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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