Ecological Epigenetics

  • Holly J. Kilvitis
  • Mariano Alvarez
  • Christy M. Foust
  • Aaron W. Schrey
  • Marta Robertson
  • Christina L. Richards
Part of the Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology book series (AEMB, volume 781)


Biologists have assumed that heritable variation due to DNA sequence differences (i.e., genetic variation) allows populations of organisms to be both robust and adaptable to extreme environmental conditions. Natural selection acts on the variation among different genotypes and ultimately changes the genetic composition of the population. While there is compelling evidence about the importance of genetic polymorphisms, evidence is accumulating that epigenetic mechanisms (e.g., chromatin modifications, DNA methylation) can affect ecologically important traits, even in the absence of genetic variation. In this chapter, we review this evidence and discuss the consequences of epigenetic variation in natural populations. We begin by defining the term epigenetics, providing a brief overview of various epigenetic mechanisms, and noting the potential importance of epigenetics in the study of ecology. We continue with a review of the ecological epigenetics literature to demonstrate what is currently known about the amount and distribution of epigenetic variation in natural populations. Then, we consider the various ecological contexts in which epigenetics has proven particularly insightful and discuss the potential evolutionary consequences of epigenetic variation. Finally, we conclude with suggestions for future directions of ecological epigenetics research.


Epigenetics Ecology Phenotypic variation 



The authors would like to thank Nadia Aubin-Horth and Christian R. Landry for the invitation to write this chapter. We also thank LB Martin, M Boruta, AJ Brace and CAC Coon for feedback on previous versions of the manuscript. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (GRFP-1144244 to HJK).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Holly J. Kilvitis
    • 1
  • Mariano Alvarez
    • 1
  • Christy M. Foust
    • 1
  • Aaron W. Schrey
    • 2
  • Marta Robertson
    • 1
  • Christina L. Richards
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Integrative BiologyUniversity of South FloridaTampaUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyArmstrong Atlantic State UniversitySavannahUSA

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