Parental environments alter DNA methylation in offspring of the purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus

• Maternal environment impacts DNA methylation of early stage offspring.

• Developmental environment has a minimal impact on DNA methylation.

• DNA methylation differences across developmental stages are minimal.

• Differences in DNA methylation is associated with body size of embryos.

Phenotypic plasticity, within and across generations, is a strategy by which organisms can respond rapidly to environmental change. Epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation, have been proposed to be involved in phenotypic plasticity. We examined the potential for the environment to mediate both transgenerational and intragenerational plasticity in DNA methylation and phenotypes in early stages of the purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, an ecologically important herbivore in kelp forest ecosystems. This approach involved a controlled laboratory experiment where adult urchins were acclimated during gametogenesis to upwelling (~1300 μatm pCO2 & 13 °C) or non-upwelling (~650 μatm pCO2 & 17 °C) conditions that are representative of their kelp forest habitat. Progeny from these adults were raised in either high (~1050 μatm) or low (~450 μatm) pCO2 treatments and sampled at three developmental stages. Differences in condition experienced by mothers were associated with differentially methylated genes in the offspring. However, differences in developmental conditions corresponded to little observable effects on gene methylation in the progeny. Variation in gene body methylation across treatments was correlated with body size of the embryos and larvae, illustrating a potential link between transgenerational phenotypic plasticity and DNA methylation. Overall, our results suggest that epigenetic factors such as DNA methylation have the potential to contribute to phenotypic plasticity in a transgenerational framework, and further, that epigenetic processes may act as a mechanism of rapid response to environmental change.

Strader M. E., Wong J. M., Kozal L .C., Leach T. S. & Hofmann G. E., in press. Parental environments alter DNA methylation in offspring of the purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. Article (subscription required).

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