Also: the spectre of epigenetic inheritance

What is is that is so scandalous about epigenetic inheritance? Not much, in my opinion. Some of the points on the spectrum clearly happen in the wild: stable and fluctuating epigenetic inheritance in plants, parental effects in animals and genomic imprinting in both. Widespread epigenetic inheritance in animals would change a lot of things, of course, but even if epigenetic inheritance turns out to be really important and common, genetics and evolution as we know them will not break. The tools to study and understand them are there.

Looking back at the post from yesterday, there are different flavours of epigenetic inheritance. At the most heritable end of the spectrum, epigenetic variants behave pretty much like genetic variants. Because quantitative genetics is agnostic to the molecular nature of the variants, as long as they behave like an inheritance system, most high-level genetic analysis will work the same. It’s just that on the molecular level, one would have to look to epigenetic marks, not to sequence changes, for the causal variant. Even if a substantial proportion of the genetic variance is caused by epigenetic variants rather than DNA sequence variants, this would not be a revolution that changes genetics or evolution into something incommensurable with previous thought.

The most revolutionary potential lies somewhere in the middle of the scale, in parental effects with really high fidelity of transmission that are potentially responsive to the environment, but in principle these things can still be dealt with by the same theoretical tools. Most people just didn’t think they were that important. How about soft inheritance? It seems dramatic, but all examples deal with specific programmed mechanisms: soft inheritance of the sensitivity to a particular odour or of the DNA methylation and expression state of a particular locus. No-one has yet suggested a generalised Lamarckian mechanism; that is still out of the question. DNA mutations are still unable to pass from somatic cells to gametes. Whatever tricks transgenerational mechanisms use to skip over the soma–germline distinction, they must be pretty exceptional. Discoveries of widespread soft inheritance in nature would be surprising, a cause for rethinking certain things and great fun. But conceptually, it is parental effects writ large. We can understand that. We have the technology.

One thought on “Also: the spectre of epigenetic inheritance

  1. Pingback: Interaktioner mellan gener förklarar antagligen inte den saknade ärftligheten | There is grandeur in this view of life

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