curioser and curioser

just when you think you’ve got inbreeding and genetics sorted out in your head (almost — well, no, not really), they throw something new at ya.

here’s an article that linton pointed out to me (thanks, linton!):

“Epigenetics Linked to Inbreeding Depression”
16 September 2011

“Inbreeding depression is the bane of conservation biology. When closely related individuals mate, which can happen when there aren’t too many members of a species left, their offspring are often less fit and less fertile, making the species all the more vulnerable. Both plants and animals can suffer from inbreeding depression, and textbooks typically attribute this phenonmenon to genetics: Recessive genes with harmful effects, whose negative influences are normally masked by a dominant copy of a gene, are more likely to pair up in offspring of more genetically similar parents.

“Or so the theory goes.

“But Philippine Vergeer, an evolutionary ecologist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, suspects that epigenetics — chemical modifications to the DNA that alter gene activity — may also be to blame, at least in plants….

“Vergeer and her Radboud colleagues Niels Wagemaker and Joop Ouborg compared DNA methylation between outbred and inbred S. columbaria — also known as small scabious — derived from the same mother plant. Methylation was 10% higher in inbred plants…. Also, inbred and outbred plants have different parts of their genomes methylated.

“The scientists then decided to look at what happened to plant offspring if they reconfigured the flora’s methylation. Every day for a week, they exposed germinating seeds of inbred and outbred plants to a demethylating agent. The result: ‘Phenotypic differences between outbred and inbred plants are nullified,’ Vergeer reported….”

so, at least in the case of these little plants, inbreeding depression seems to be connected to epigenetics and not genetics. when they reversed the epigenetics in these plants, the inbred plants photosynthesized (which is what the researchers were measuring) just as well as the outbred plants.


there has been some research done showing that epigenetic states are probably regulated (if that’s the right way to put it) by the underlying genetics, so perhaps the inbreeding depression in these plants was still a result of too many “bad genes.” but it’s cool that they could reverse the inbreeding depression by getting rid of the methylation!

there have also been studies, of course, showing that some epigentic states can be inherited across a few or several generations.

see also: Inbreeding and epigenetics: beneficial as well as deleterious effects

previously: the genetics of epigenetics

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  1. @georgia resident – “So perhaps a lot of harmful recessives regulate (or dysregulate) methylation?”

    maybe! we shall have to wait and see until the scientists figure it out. (it’ll prolly turn out to be more complicated than anyone imagines right now.)


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