Verification of epigenetic inheritance in a unicellular model system: multigenerational effects of hormonal imprinting


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The unicellular Tetrahymena has receptors for hormones of higher vertebrates, produces these hormones, and their signal pathways are similar. The first encounter with a hormone in higher dose provokes the phenomenon of hormonal imprinting, by which the reaction of the cell is quantitatively modified. This modification is transmitted to the progeny generations. The duration of the single imprinter effect of two representative signal molecules, insulin and 5-HT (5-hydroxytryptamine), in two concentrations (10−6 and 10−15 M) were studied. The effects of imprinting were followed in 5 physiological indices: (i) insulin binding, (ii) 5-HT synthesis, (iii) swimming behaviour, (iv) cell growth and (v) chemotaxis in progeny generations 500 and 1000. The result of each index was different from the non-imprinted control functions, growth rate, swimming behaviour and chemotactic activity to insulin being enhanced, while others, e.g. synthesis and chemotactic responsiveness of 5-HT and the binding of insulin were reduced. This means that a function-specific heritable epigenetic change during imprinting occurs, and generally a single encounter with a femtomolar hormone concentration is enough for provoking durable and heritable imprinting in Tetrahymena. The experiments demonstrate the possibility of epigenetic effects at a unicellular level and call attention to the possibility that the character of unicellular organisms has changed through to the present day due to an enormous amount of non-physiological imprinter substances in their environment. The results – together with results obtained earlier in mammals – point to the validity of epigenetic imprinting effects throughout the animal world.