Epigenetic inheritance: A silver bullet against climate change?

March 20, 2020

The current pace of climate change exceeds historical events by 1-2 orders of magnitude, which will make it hard for organisms and ecosystems to adapt. For a long time, it has been assumed that adaptation was only possible by changes in the genetic makeup - the DNA base sequence. Recently, another information level of the DNA, namely epigenetics, has come into focus.

Using a fish species from the Baltic Sea, the three-spined stickleback, an international team investigated whether and how epigenetics contributes to adaptation. "Our experiment shows that epigenetic modifications affect adaptation, but also that the changes from one generation to the next are smaller than previously assumed," says biologist Dr. Melanie Heckwolf from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. She is one author of the study, which has now been published in Science Advances.

But what distinguishes changes in DNA from changes in epigenetics? "Individuals with certain heritable traits encoded in the DNA can cope with the prevailing environment better than others. On average, those individuals can cope better with their environment, hence survive longer and produce more offspring. In the long run, their characteristics encoded in the DNA will prevail. This process refers to natural selection," explains Dr. Britta Meyer from GEOMAR. However, selection requires time, and time is scarce in the face of rapid climate change.

In contrast, epigenetic processes chemically influence the structure of the DNA. They activate or deactivate areas of the genome that are responsible for certain traits or responses to environmental conditions. On the one hand, "stable" epigenetic markers, through natural selection, contribute to adaptation in a similar way as the DNA itself. On the other hand, "inducible" markers are those that can change during the life of an individual. In theory, if this happens in the gametes of the parents, their offspring are given an advantage to cope with their environment. Many scientists therefore expect that inducible markers will react particularly quickly and thus ensure the survival of organisms in the face of rapid changes.

The research groups of Prof. Dr. Thorsten Reusch (GEOMAR, Germany) and Dr. Christophe Eizaguirre (Queen Mary University of London, UK) have investigated whether and how these stable and inducible markers contribute to adaptation. They use the Baltic three-spined stickleback fish because it is currently adapted to different salinity conditions ranging from saltwater to freshwater. Further, the Baltic Sea is a natural laboratory for climate change research because the effects of climate change are already evident there.

"In order to understand how fish respond to the consequences of climate change, we collected stickleback populations from different regions of the North and Baltic Seas with different salinity levels," explains Dr. Meyer. The team found that the different populations differed in their genetic and epigenetic makeups and also had different tolerances to changes in salinity. In an experiment involving two generations of sticklebacks, the team was also able to show that inducible markers improve the response of the second generation to environmental change, albeit to a lesser extent than initially assumed.

Overall, the study shows that organisms will eventually reach their limits to respond to climate change, even with epigenetic modes of adaptation. "We have to be careful not to overinterpret this exciting but poorly understood field of research in epigenetics as a silver bullet against climate change for all species," says Melanie Heckwolf. "Climate change is one of the greatest challenges for species and ecosystems, and the natural mechanisms available to species to respond may not be sufficient if climate change remains so strong and rapid."
-end-


Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel (GEOMAR)

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.