How is epigenetics predicted to contribute to climate change adaptation? What evidence do we need?

Authors: Katrina McGuigan, Ary A Hoffmann, and Carla M Sgrò

Published in: Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B


Transgenerational effects that are interpreted in terms of epigenetics have become an important research focus at a time when rapid environmental changes are occurring. These effects are usually interpreted as enhancing fitness extremely rapidly, without depending on the slower process of natural selection changing DNA-encoded (fixed) genetic variants in populations. Supporting evidence comes from a variety of sources, including environmental associations with epialleles, cross-generation responses of clonal material exposed to different environmental conditions, and altered patterns of methylation or frequency changes in epialleles across time.

Transgenerational environmental effects have been postulated to be larger than those associated with DNA-encoded genetic changes, based on (for instance) stronger associations between epialleles and environmental conditions. Yet environmental associations for fixed genetic differences may always be weak under polygenic models where multiple combinations of alleles can lead to the same evolutionary outcome. The ultimate currency of adaptation is fitness, and few transgenerational studies have robustly determined fitness effects, particularly when compared to fixed genetic variants.

Not all transgenerational modifications triggered by climate change will increase fitness: stressful conditions often trigger negative fitness effects across generations that can eliminate benefits. Epigenetic responses and other transgenerational effects will undoubtedly play a role in climate change adaptation, but further, well-designed, studies are required to test their importance relative to DNA-encoded changes.

This article is part of the theme issue ‘How does epigenetics influence the course of evolution?’


McGuigan K, Hoffmann AA, Sgrò CM (2021) How is epigenetics predicted to contribute to climate change adaptation? What evidence do we need? Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B PDF DOI