Epigenetic stability and plasticity of social environmental effects

Epigenetic modifications function as flexible mechanisms to increase a species' adaptability to environmental changes. Such changes may also involve the social environment. Therefore we want to know, if a certain social status is reflected by a specific (for that status) epigenetic pattern.

Project details
Duration: 01/2018 - 12/2020
Third-party funded: yes
Involved Department(s): Dept Evolutionary Genetics, Dept Ecological Dynamics, Dept Wildlife Diseases, Junior Professorship Parasite-Host Interactions
Leibniz-IZW Project Leader(s): Alexandra Weyrich (Dept Evolutionary Genetics), Sarah Benhaiem (Dept Ecological Dynamics)
Leibniz-IZW Project Team: Jörns Fickel (Dept Evolutionary Genetics), Gábor Czirják (Dept Wildlife Diseases), Marion L. East (Dept Ecological Dynamics), Heribert Hofer (Scientific Director) Emanuel Heitlinger (Junior Professorship Parasite-Host Interactions)
Consortium Partner(s): McGill University (Canada), Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel), Open University of Israel (Israel), University of Potsdam, Helmholtz-Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH)
Current Funding Organisation: Leibniz Competition
Research Foci:
In many mammalian species social status significantly affects Darwinian fitness by altering health, life history, and physiological trade-offs. Social status is usually stable throughout life and a behaviourally transmitted trait. As a result, social inequalities often persist within and across generations. The molecular mechanisms underlying these social effects are still poorly understood. Epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation, flexibly respond to environmental changes and can be transmitted to subsequent generations and thus are a good candidate mechanism.

Hence within this project, we hypothesise that DNA methylation is a main mechanism through which an individual’s social environment regulates gene expression and physiological responses. We also hypothesize that changes in social status will led to changes in epigenetic patterns. To test our hypotheses, we will study the DNA methylation patterns in the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), a highly social mammal, for which life-history data and biological samples have been accumulated within the long-term Serengeti Hyena Project.

Funded by the Leibniz-Association (Competitive Fund, Leibniz-Collaborative Excellence, SAW project, SAW-2018-IZW-3-EpiRank).

Selected Publications

Guerrero TPFickel JBenhaiem SWeyrich A (2020): Epigenomics and gene regulation in mammalian social systems. Invited to special issue on “Social behavior and evolution in the omics era” in CURR  ZOOL, zoaa005. doi:10.1093/cz/zoaa005.