6708 PB Wageningen
My research uses genetic and genomic tools and applies them in ecologically relevant contexts in order to understand how plant populations respond to changing environments. One of my research interests is in ecological epigenetics: what role does epigenetic variation play in ecology and microevolution? Other topics that I work on include genetic and ecological aspects of plant invasions, the evolutionary ecology of asexually reproducing plants, intraspecific variation in plant-microbiome interactions, and urban evolution in plants.
Background and aims: Plants continuously interact with soil microbiota. These plant-soil feedbacks (PSFs) are considered a driving force in plant community dynamics. However, most PSF information comes from inter-family studies, with limited information on possible causes. We studied the variation of PSFs between and within grass species and identified the soil microbes that are associated with the observed PSFs effects. Methods: We grew monocultures of ten cultivars of three grass species (Lolium perenne, Poa pratensis, Schedonorus arundinaceus) using a two-phase PSF experiment. We measured plant total biomass to determine PSFs between and within species and correlated it with sequenced rhizosphere bacteria and fungi. Results: In the soil conditioning phase, grass species developed microbial legacies that affected the performance of other grass species in the feedback phase. We detected overall negative interspecific PSFs. While we show that L. perenne and P. pratensis increased their performance respectively in conspecific and heterospecific soils, S. arundinaceus was not strongly affected by the legacies of the previous plant species. Contrary to our expectation, we found no evidence for intraspecific variation in PSFs. Bacterial taxa associated with PSFs included members of Proteobacteria, Firmicutes, Verrucomicrobia and Planctomycetes whereas fungal taxa included members of Ascomycota. Conclusion: Our results suggest differences in PSF effects between grass species, but not between cultivars within species. Thus, in the studied grass species, there might be limited potential for breeding on plant traits mediated by PSFs. Furthermore, we point out potential microbial candidates that might be driving the observed PSF effects that could be further explored.
Environmentally induced DNA methylation variants may mediate gene expression responses to environmental changes. If such induced variants are transgenerationally stable, there is potential for expression responses to persist over multiple generations. Our current knowledge in plants, however, is almost exclusively based on studies conducted in sexually reproducing species where the majority of DNA methylation changes are subject to resetting in germlines, limiting the potential for transgenerational epigenetics stress memory. Asexual reproduction circumvents germlines, and may therefore be more conducive to long-term inheritance of epigenetic marks. Taking advantage of the rapid clonal reproduction of the common duckweed Lemna minor, we hypothesize that long-term, transgenerational stress memory from exposure to high temperature can be detected in DNA methylation profiles. Using a reduced representation bisulphite sequencing approach (epiGBS), we show that temperature stress induces DNA hypermethylation at many CG and CHG cytosine contexts but not CHH. Additionally, differential methylation in CHG context that was observed was still detected in a subset of cytosines, even after 3–12 generations of culturing in a common environment. This demonstrates a memory effect of stress reflected in the methylome and that persists over multiple clonal generations. Structural annotation revealed that this memory effect in CHG methylation was enriched in transposable elements. The observed epigenetic stress memory is probably caused by stable transgenerational persistence of temperature-induced DNA methylation variants across clonal generations. To the extent that such epigenetic memory has functional consequences for gene expression and phenotypes, this result suggests potential for long-term modulation of stress responses in asexual plants.
Understanding the role of genetic and nongenetic variants in modulating phenotypes is central to our knowledge of adaptive responses to local conditions and environmental change, particularly in species with such low population genetic diversity that it is likely to limit their evolutionary potential. A first step towards uncovering the molecular mechanisms underlying population-specific responses to the environment is to carry out environmental association studies. We associated climatic variation with genetic, epigenetic and microbiome variation in populations of a social spider with extremely low standing genetic diversity. We identified genetic variants that are associated strongly with environmental variation, particularly with average temperature, a pattern consistent with local adaptation. Variation in DNA methylation in many genes was strongly correlated with a wide set of climate parameters, thereby revealing a different pattern of associations than that of genetic variants, which show strong correlations to a more restricted range of climate parameters. DNA methylation levels were largely independent of cis-genetic variation and of overall genetic population structure, suggesting that DNA methylation can work as an independent mechanism. Microbiome composition also correlated with environmental variation, but most strong associations were with precipitation-related climatic factors. Our results suggest a role for both genetic and nongenetic mechanisms in shaping phenotypic responses to local environments.
Ecological genomics approaches have informed us about the structure of genetic diversity in natural populations that might underlie patterns in trait variation. However, we still know surprisingly little about the mechanisms that permit organisms to adapt to variable environmental conditions. The salt marsh foundation plant Spartina alterniflora exhibits a dramatic range in phenotype that is associated with a pronounced intertidal environmental gradient across a narrow spatial scale. Both genetic and non-genetic molecular mechanisms might underlie this phenotypic variation. To investigate both, we used epigenotyping-by-sequencing (epiGBS) to evaluate the make-up of natural populations across the intertidal environmental gradient. Based on recent findings, we expected that both DNA sequence and DNA methylation diversity would be explained by source population and habitat within populations. However, we predicted that epigenetic variation might be more strongly associated with habitat since similar epigenetic modifications could be rapidly elicited across different genetic backgrounds by similar environmental conditions. Overall, with PERMANOVA we found that population of origin explained a significant amount of the genetic (8.6%) and epigenetic (3.2%) variance. In addition, we found that a small but significant amount of genetic and epigenetic variance (<1%) was explained by habitat within populations. The interaction of population and habitat explained an additional 2.9% of the genetic variance and 1.4% of the epigenetic variance. By examining genetic and epigenetic variation within the same fragments (variation in close-cis), we found that population explained epigenetic variation in 9.2% of 8,960 tested loci, even after accounting for differences in the DNA sequence of the fragment. Habitat alone explained very little (<0.1%) of the variation in these close-cis comparisons, but the interaction of population and habitat explained 2.1% of the epigenetic variation in these loci. Using multiple matrix regression with randomization (MMRR) we found that phenotypic differences in natural populations were correlated with epigenetic and environmental differences even when accounting for genetic differences. Our results support the contention that sequence variation explains most of the variation in DNA methylation, but we have provided evidence that DNA methylation distinctly contributes to plant responses in natural populations.
Several reduced-representation bisulfite sequencing methods have been developed in recent years to determine cytosine methylation de novo in nonmodel species. Here, we present epiGBS2, a laboratory protocol based on epiGBS with a revised and user-friendly bioinformatics pipeline for a wide range of species with or without a reference genome. epiGBS2 is cost- and time-efficient and the computational workflow is designed in a user-friendly and reproducible manner. The library protocol allows a flexible choice of restriction enzymes and a double digest. The bioinformatics pipeline was integrated in the Snakemake workflow management system, which makes the pipeline easy to execute and modular, and parameter settings for important computational steps flexible. We implemented bismark for alignment and methylation analysis and we preprocessed alignment files by double masking to enable single nucleotide polymorphism calling with Freebayes (epiFreebayes). The performance of several critical steps in epiGBS2 was evaluated against baseline data sets from Arabidopsis thaliana and great tit (Parus major), which confirmed its overall good performance. We provide a detailed description of the laboratory protocol and an extensive manual of the bioinformatics pipeline, which is publicly accessible on github (https://github.com/nioo-knaw/epiGBS2) and zenodo (https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4764652).
Disentangling the interaction between the genetic basis and environmental context underlying phenotypic variation is critical for understanding organismal evolution. Environmental change, such as increased rates of urbanization, can induce shifts in phenotypic plasticity with some individuals adapting to city life while others are displaced. A key trait that can facilitate adaptation is the degree at which animals respond to stressors. This stress response, which includes elevation of baseline circulating concentrations of glucocorticoids, has a heritable component and exhibits intra- and inter-individual variation. However, the mechanisms behind this variability and whether they might be responsible for adaptation to different environments are not known. Variation in DNA methylation can be a potential mechanism that mediates environmental effects on the stress response, as early-life stressors increase glucocorticoid concentrations and change adult phenotype. We used an inter- and intra-environmental cross-foster experiment to analyse the contribution of DNA methylation to early-life phenotypic variation. We found that at hatching, urban house wren (Troglodytes aedon) offspring had higher methylation frequencies compared with their rural counterparts. We also observed age-related patterns in offspring methylation, indicating the developmental effects of the rearing environment on methylation. At fledgling, differential methylation analyses showed that cellular respiration genes were differentially methylated in broods of different origins and behavioural and metabolism genes were differentially methylated in broods of different rearing environments. Lastly, hyper-methylation of a single gene (CNTNAP2) is associated with decreased glucocorticoid levels and the rearing environment. These differential methylation patterns linked to a specific physiological phenotype suggest that DNA methylation may be a mechanism by which individuals adjust to novel environments during their lifespan. Characterizing genetic and environmental influences on methylation is critical for understanding the role of epigenetic mechanisms in evolutionary adaptation.
Background: 5-Methylcytosine (5mC) is an important epigenetic mark in eukaryotes. Little information about its role exists for invertebrates. To investigate the contribution of 5mC to phenotypic variation in invertebrates, alteration of methylation patterns needs to be produced. Here, we apply new non-nucleoside DNA methyltransferase inhibitors (DNMTi) to introduce aleatory changes into the methylome of mollusk species. Results: Flavanone inhibitor Flv1 was efficient in reducing 5mC in the freshwater snails Biomphalaria glabrata and Physa acuta, and to a lesser degree, probably due to lower stability in sea water, in the oyster Crassostrea gigas. Flv1 has no toxic effects and significantly decreased the 5mC level in the treated B. glabrata and in its offspring. Drug treatment triggers significant variation in the shell height in both generations. A reduced representation bisulfite-sequencing method called epiGBS corroborates hypomethylation effect of Flv1 in both B. glabrata generations and identifies seven Differential Methylated Regions (DMR) out of 32 found both in Flv1-exposed snails and its progeny, from which 5 were hypomethylated, demonstrating a multigenerational effect. By targeted bisulfite sequencing, we confirmed hypomethylation in a locus and show that it is associated with reduced gene expression. Conclusions: Flv1 is a new and efficient DNMTi that can be used to induce transient and heritable modifications of the epigenetic landscape and phenotypic traits in mollusks, a phylum of the invertebrates in which epigenetics is understudied.
The role of DNA methylation and its interaction with gene expression and transcriptome plasticity is poorly understood, and current insight comes mainly from studies in very few model plant species. Here, we study gene body DNA methylation (gbM) and gene expression patterns in ecotypes from contrasting thermal environments of two marine plants with contrasting life history strategies in order to explore the potential role epigenetic mechanisms could play in gene plasticity and responsiveness to heat stress. In silico transcriptome analysis of CpGO/E ratios suggested that the bulk of Posidonia oceanica and Cymodocea nodosa genes possess high levels of intragenic methylation. We also observed a correlation between gbM and gene expression flexibility: genes with low DNA methylation tend to show flexible gene expression and plasticity under changing conditions. Furthermore, the empirical determination of global DNA methylation (5-mC) showed patterns of intra and inter-specific divergence that suggests a link between methylation level and the plants’ latitude of origin and life history. Although we cannot discern whether gbM regulates gene expression or vice versa, or if other molecular mechanisms play a role in facilitating transcriptome responsiveness, our findings point to the existence of a relationship between gene responsiveness and gbM patterns in marine plants.
Stochastic changes in DNA methylation (i.e., spontaneous epimutations) contribute to methylome diversity in plants. Here, we describe AlphaBeta, a computational method for estimating the precise rate of such stochastic events using pedigree-based DNA methylation data as input. We demonstrate how AlphaBeta can be employed to study transgenerationally heritable epimutations in clonal or sexually derived mutation accumulation lines, as well as somatic epimutations in long-lived perennials. Application of our method to published and new data reveals that spontaneous epimutations accumulate neutrally at the genome-wide scale, originate mainly during somatic development and that they can be used as a molecular clock for age-dating trees.
DNA methylation is one of the mechanisms underlying epigenetic modifications. DNA methylations can be environmentally induced and such induced modifications can at times be transmitted to successive generations. However, it remains speculative how common such environmentally induced transgenerational DNA methylation changes are and if they persist for more than one offspring generation. We exposed multiple accessions of two different apomictic dandelion lineages of the Taraxacum officinale group (Taraxacum alatum and T. hemicyclum) to drought and salicylic acid (SA) treatment. Using methylation-sensitive amplified fragment length polymorphism markers (MS-AFLPs) we screened anonymous methylation changes at CCGG restriction sites throughout the genome after stress treatments and assessed the heritability of induced changes for two subsequent unexposed offspring generations. Irrespective of the initial stress treatment, a clear buildup of heritable DNA methylation variation was observed across three generations, indicating a considerable background rate of heritable epimutations. Less evidence was detected for environmental effects. Drought stress showed some evidence for accession-specific methylation changes, but only in the exposed generation and not in their offspring. By contrast, SA treatment caused an increased rate of methylation change in offspring of treated plants. These changes were seemingly undirected resulting in increased transgenerational epigenetic variation between offspring individuals, but not in predictable epigenetic variants. While the functional consequences of these MS-AFLP-detected DNA methylation changes remain to be demonstrated, our study shows that (1) stress-induced transgenerational DNA methylation modification in dandelions is genotype and context-specific; and (2) inherited environmental DNA methylation effects are mostly undirected and not targeted to specific loci.
Populations often differ in phenotype and these differences can be caused by adaptation by natural selection, random neutral processes, and environmental responses. The most straightforward way to divide mechanisms that influence phenotypic variation is heritable variation and environmental-induced variation (e.g., plasticity). While genetic variation is responsible for most heritable phenotypic variation, part of this is also caused by nongenetic inheritance. Epigenetic processes may be one of the underlying mechanisms of plasticity and nongenetic inheritance and can therefore possibly contribute to heritable differences through drift and selection. Epigenetic variation may be influenced directly by the environment, and part of this variation can be transmitted to next generations. Field screenings combined with common garden experiments will add valuable insights into epigenetic differentiation, epigenetic memory and can help to reveal part of the relative importance of epigenetics in explaining trait variation. We explored both genetic and epigenetic diversity, structure and differentiation in the field and a common garden for five British and five French Scabiosa columbaria populations. Genetic and epigenetic variation was subsequently correlated with trait variation. Populations showed significant epigenetic differentiation between populations and countries in the field, but also when grown in a common garden. By comparing the epigenetic variation between field and common garden-grown plants, we showed that a considerable part of the epigenetic memory differed from the field-grown plants and was presumably environmentally induced. The memory component can consist of heritable variation in methylation that is not sensitive to environments and possibly genetically based, or environmentally induced variation that is heritable, or a combination of both. Additionally, random epimutations might be responsible for some differences as well. By comparing epigenetic variation in both the field and common environment, our study provides useful insight into the environmental and genetic components of epigenetic variation.
Dandelion plants protect their roots from the larva of the common cockchafer beetle by accumulating and releasing a sesquiterpene lactone deterrent in their exuded latex.
Recently, genomic data have revealed a "block-like" structure of haplotype diversity on human chromosomes. This structure is anticipated to facilitate gene mapping studies, because strong associations among loci within a block may allow haplotype variation to be tagged with a limited number of markers. But its usefulness to mapping efforts depends on the consistency of the block structure within and among populations, which in turn depends on how the block structure arises. Recombination hot spots are generally thought to underlie the block structure, but haplotype blocks can also develop stochastically under random recombination, in which case the block structure will show limited consistency among populations. Using coalescent models, which we upscaled to simulate the evolution of haplotypes with many markers at fixed distances, we show that the relationship between block boundaries and historic recombination intensity may be surprisingly weak. The majority of historic recombinations do not leave a footprint in present-day linkage disequilibrium patterns, and the block structure is sensitive to factors that affect the timing of recombination relative to marker mutation events in the genealogy, such as marker frequency bias and historic population size changes. Our results give insight into the potential of stochastic events to affect haplotype block structure, which can limit the usefulness of the block structure to mapping studies.