Epigenetic Potential as a Mechanism of Phenotypic Plasticity in Vertebrate Range Expansions

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Integrative and Comparative Biology






During range expansions, organisms are often exposed to multiple pressures, including novel enemies (i.e., predators, competitors and/or parasites) and unfamiliar or limited resources. Additionally, small propagule sizes at range edges can result in genetic founder effects and bottlenecks, which can affect phenotypic diversity and thus selection. Despite these obstacles, individuals in expanding populations often thrive at the periphery of a range, and this success may be mediated by phenotypic plasticity. Increasing evidence suggests that epigenetic mechanisms may underlie such plasticity because they allow for more rapid phenotypic responses to novel environments than are possible via the accumulation of genetic variation. Here, we review how molecular epigenetic mechanisms could facilitate plasticity in range-expanding organisms, emphasizing the roles of DNA methylation and other epigenetic marks in the physiological regulatory networks that drive whole-organism performance. We focus on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, arguing that epigenetically-mediated plasticity in the regulation of glucocorticoids in particular might strongly impact range expansions. We hypothesize that novel environments release and/or select for epigenetic potential in HPA variation and hence organismal performance and ultimately fitness.


The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.