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.

Annonser

Morning coffee: the spectrum of epigenetic inheritance

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Let us think aloud about the different possible meanings of epigenetic inheritance. I don’t want to contribute to unnecessary proliferation of terminology — people have already coined molar/molecular epigenetics (Crews 2009), intergenerational/transgenerational effects (Heard & Martienssen 2014), and probably several more dichotomies. But I thought it could be instructive to try to think about epigenetic inheritance in terms of the contribution it could make to variance components of a quantitative genetic model. After all, quantitative genetics is mostly agnostic about the molecular nature of the heritable variation.

At one end of the spectrum we find molecular epigenetic marks such as DNA methylation, as they feature in the normal development of the organism. Regardless of how faithfully they are transmitted through mitosis, or even if they pass through meiosis, they only contribute to individual variation if they are perturbed in different ways between individuals. If they do vary between individuals, though, in a fashion that is not passed on to the offspring, they will end up in the environmental variance component.

What about transmissible variation? There are multiple non-genetic ways for information to be passed a single generation: maternal or paternal effects need not be epigenetic in the molecular sense. They could be, like genomic imprinting, but they could also be caused by some biomolecule in the sperm, something that passes the blood–placenta barrier or something deposited by the mother into the egg. Transgenerational effects of this kind make related individuals more similar, they will affect the genetic variance component unless they are controlled. And in the best possible world of experimental design, parental effects can be controlled and modelled, and we can in principle separate out the maternal, paternal and genetic component. Think of effects like in Weaver & al (2004) that are perpetuated by maternal behaviour. If the behavioural transmission is strong enough they might form a pretty stable heritable effect that would appear in the genetic variance component if it’s not broken up by cross-fostering.

However, if the variation behaves like germ-line variation it will be irreversible by cross-fostering, inseparable from the genetic variance component, and it will have the potential to form a genuine parallel inheritance system. The question is: how stable will it be? Animals seem to be very good at resetting the epigenetic germline each generation. The most provocative suggestion is probably some type of variation that is both faithfully transmitted and sometimes responsive to the environment. Responsiveness means less fidelity of transmission, though, and it seems (Slatkin 2009) like epigenetic variants need to be stable for many generations to make any lasting impact on heritability. Then, at the heritable end of the spectrum, we find epigenetic variants that arise from some type of random mutation event and are transmitted faithfully through the germline. If they exist, they will behave just like any genetic variants and even have a genomic locus.

Morning coffee: epigenetic inheritance of odour sensitivity

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A while ago I wrote a bit about the recent paper on epigenetic inheritance of acetophenone sensitivity and odorant receptor expression. I spent most of the post talking about potential problems, but actually I’m not that negative. There is quite a literature building up about these transgenerational effects, that is quite inspiring if a little overhyped. I for one do not think epigenetic inheritance is particularly outrageous or disrupting to genetics and evolution as we know it. Take this paper: even if it means inheritance of an acquired trait, it is probably not very stable over the generations, and it is nothing like a general Lamarckian transmission mechanism that can work for any trait. It is probably very specific for odourant receptors. It might allow for genetic assimilation of fear of odours though, which would be cool, but probably not at all easy to demonstrate. But no-one knows how it works, if it does — there are even multiple unknown steps. How does fear conditioning translate to DNA methylation differences sperm that translates to olfactory receptor expression in the brain of the offspring?

A while after the transgenerational effects paper I saw this one in PNAS: Rare event of histone demethylation can initiate singular gene expression of olfactory receptors (Tan, Song & Xie 2013). I had no idea olfactory receptor expression was that fascinating! (As is often the case when you scratch the surface of another problem in biology, there turns out to be interesting stuff there …) Mice have lots and lots of odorant receptor genes, but each olfactory neuron only expresses one of them. Apparently the expression is regulated by histone 3 lycine 9 methylation. The genes start out methylated and suppressed, but once one of them is expressed it will keep all other down by downregulating a histone demethylase. This is a modeling paper that shows that if random demethylation happens slowly enough and the feedback to shut down further demethylation is fast enough, these steps are sufficient to explain the specificity of expression. There are some connections between histone methylation and DNA methylation: it seems that DNA methylation binds proteins that bring histone methylases to the gene (review Cedar & Bergman 2009). Dias & Ressler saw hypomethylation near the olfactory receptor gene in question, Olfr151. Maybe that difference, if it survives through to the developing brain of the offspring, can make demethylation of the locus more likely and give Olfr151 a head start in the race to become the first expressed receptor gene.

Literature

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

Longzhi Tan, Chenghang Zong, X. Sunney Xie (2013) Rare event of histone demethylation can initiate singular gene expression of olfactory receptors. PNAS 10.1073/pnas.1321511111

Howard Cedar, Yehudit Bergman (2009) Linking DNA methylation and histone modification: patterns and paradigms. Nature reviews genetics doi:10.1038/nrg2540

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.

Furthermore,

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.

Comments:

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.

Literature

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