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Environmental stress and the epigenome

Dr Amanda Bretman (SoB), Dr Elizabeth Duncan (SoB), Dr Steve Sait (SoB)

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The need to understand the genetic underpinning of species’ responses to environmental stress has been brought into sharp focus because of the potential consequences of future climate change and the ability, or not, of animals to cope with that change. Animals face challenges of environmental stress from many sources, such as temperature, nutrition, toxins, disease and social interactions. These stresses can be variable and unpredictable, acute or long lasting, and impact many aspects of individual fitness (reproductive output, rate of ageing and ultimately lifespan e.g. Leech et al 2017). To combat these stresses individuals can be plastic in their behaviour or physiology. The mechanisms that underlie these processes are not well understood, but recently there has been rise in interest in the role played by the epigenome (chemical markers on DNA that do not change the sequence but determining how accessible genes are for expression). Information about the environment an animal experiences can affect gene expression and the epigenome (Duncan et al., 2014). This enables the epigenome to be environmentally sensitive, for example to maternal nutrition (Dolinoy et al., 2007), heat stress (Seong et al., 2011), amount of parental care (Roth et al., 2009), stressful confinement (Rodgers et al., 2015), and environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke (Qiu et al., 2015). Despite the fact that changes to the epigenome can be fast, occurring within hours (e.g. Kangaspeska et al., 2008), these changes states can have long lasting effects on the individual and even transgenerational effects as epigenetic information can be passed from parent to offspring (e.g. Roth et al., 2009). These processes may therefore play a critical role in determining which species survive this era of huge global environment change.

As yet we have limited understanding of what effect stresses have on the epigenome and hence subsequent fitness of the animal and whether different stresses cause similar responses. To explore this we will use insect model systems (Drosophila fruit flies, Indian meal moths, bees) and interfere with various epigenetic marks chemically and genetically (using transgenic fruit flies). We will test whether there are commonalities in responses across different stressors (hot and cold temperatures, starvation, desiccation, crowding) and how these stressors interact. By using various insect species we can test the generality of responses. To examine how stresses alter epigenetic states, we will employ cutting edge sequencing technology (ChIP-seq). In an increasingly changing world, this will give us exciting new insights into how animals cope with environmental stress and how the epigenome interacts with fitness.


Dolinoy et al 2007 PNAS 104, 13056

Duncan et al 2014 J. Experimental Zool B 322, 208

Kangaspeska et al 2008 Nature 452, 112

Leech et al 2017 J. Insect Phys

Qiu et al 2015 Epigenetics 10, 1064

Rodgers et al 2015 PNAS 112, 13699

Roth et al 2009 Biol. Psychiatry 65, 760

Seong et al 2011 Cell 145, 1049

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biodiversity
  • Bioinformatics
  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Evolution
  • Genetics
  • Molecular ecology
  • Zoology