Journal club of one: ”Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations”

Okay, neither chickens nor genetics, really, but a little epigenetic inheritance. Dias & Ressler in Nature neuroscience:

When an odor (acetophenone) that activates a known odorant receptor (Olfr151) was used to condition F0 mice, the behavioral sensitivity of the F1 and F2 generations to acetophenone was complemented by an enhanced neuroanatomical representation of the Olfr151 pathway.

Meaning that the offspring of conditioned mice score higher in an odour potentiated startle test (more about that below), avoid the odour at a lower concentration in an aversion test and have more neurons expressing that odorant receptor in their olfactory epithelium and bulb, counted by betagalactosidase staining in transgenic mice expressing M71, the product of Olfr151, coupled to LacZ.


Bisulfite sequencing of sperm DNA from conditioned F0 males and F1 naive offspring revealed CpG   hypomethylation in the Olfr151 gene. In addition, in vitro fertilization, F2 inheritance and cross-fostering revealed that these transgenerational effects are inherited via parental gametes.

That is, they detect a difference in methylation in one CpG dinucleotide in the 3′ region of the gene.


First, I love how the journal does exactly the thing I like to see with figures: below each figure is a link that leads to a data file with the underlying data!

Olfactory behaviour is not my thing, so the tests are new to me, but I’m a bit puzzled by the way they calculate the results from the odour potentiated startle tests. The point is to test whether the presence of the odour make the mice react stronger to a noise. After buzzing the sound 15 times without odour, they perform ten trials with odour plus sound and ten trials with sound only. But in calculating the score, they use only the difference between the first trial with odour and the last trial with sound only divided by how much the mouse reacted to the last of the first 15 sounds. Maybe this is standard, but why throw away the trials in between?

It is not only the olfactory potentiated startle and the sensitivity test, but the staining results. Again, this is not my area, but the results all seem to point to increased sensitivity in the offspring of the treated animals. They react stronger in the startle test, react at lower concentration in the avoidance test and they (in this case, the transgenic mice) have more neurons expressing M71. The cross fostering and the fact that the males were treated but not the females points to genuine inheritance. So, how does the treatment get into the germline? It has to cross that boundary and enter the sperm somehow. Unless there is some mysterious way for information from the central nervous system to travel to the testis, acetophenone must affect the spermatogenesis as well as the olfactory neurons.

All this is very hypothetical, so a little skepticism is not surprising. Gonzalo Otazu wrote in a comment on the Nature news webpage:

The statistical tests in the paper, both for the behavioral measurements as well as for the size of the M71 glomeruli , use as n, number of samples, the number of F1 and F2 individuals. This would be fine if the individuals were actually independent samples. However, they arise from a presumably small number of FO males. The numbers of FO males are not given in the paper. This is a major concern given that there is a lot of variability in the levels of expression of olfactory receptors in these mice that might be inheritable …

I think this is a good point but it will not be solved, as the comment later suggests, by adjusting the degrees of freedom of the test. From the F1 generation and on, genetic differences between the treatment groups, if they do exist, will amplify into a bias issue. That is, it is a systematic difference that might be bigger or smaller than the treatment effect and go in the same or opposite direction — we don’t know. However, the bias should not be there all the time, and not in the same direction, so it strengthens the authors’ case that they’ve done the treatment at least twice (with C57B/6J and with M17-LacZ mice, if not more times).

Maybe my preference for genetics is showing, but I feel the big unadressed alternative hypothesis in most transgenerational effects experiments is cryptic heritability. If you divide individuals into two groups, treat one of them and look for treatment effects in the offspring, you need to be sure that there are not genetc differences between the founders of the two groups. In the subsequent generations, genetic and non-genetic inheritance will be counfounded by design.

Again, randomisation and replication will help, but to be really sure, maybe one can use founders of known relatedness to create a mixed population — say take founders from full-sibships and split them equally between treatment groups, allowing segregation to randomise the genotypes of the next generation. It doesn’t say in the methods — the authors might even have done something like this. One could even use a genetic mixed model that includes relatedness as to estimate treatment effects over in the prescence of a genetic effect. I have a suspicion this experiment would require a much larger sample size, which means more time, work and animals — but I also believe that many would find confounding genetic variation more plausible than transgenerational epigenetic effects of unknown mechanism.


Brian G Dias & Kerry J Ressler (2013) Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations Nature neuroscience doi:10.1038/nn.3594