Evidence of a conserved functional role for DNA methylation in termites


Correspondence: Michael A. D. Goodisman, School of Biology, Georgia Institute of Technology, 310 Ferst Dr., Atlanta, GA 30332, USA. Tel.: +1 404 385 6311; fax: +1 404 894 0519; e-mail: michael.goodisman@biology.gatech.edu


Many organisms are capable of developing distinct phenotypes from the same genotype. This developmental plasticity is particularly prevalent in insects, which can produce alternate adaptive forms in response to distinct environmental cues. The ability to develop divergent phenotypes from the same genotype often relies on epigenetic information, which affects gene function and is transmitted through cell divisions. One of the most important epigenetic marks, DNA methylation, has been lost in several insect lineages, yet its taxonomic distribution and functional conservation remain uninvestigated in many taxa. In the present study, we demonstrate that the signature of high levels of DNA methylation exists in the expressed genes of two termites, Reticulitermes flavipes and Coptotermes formosanus. Further, we show that DNA methylation is preferentially targeted to genes with ubiquitous expression among morphs. Functional associations of DNA methylation are also similar to those observed in other invertebrate taxa with functional DNA methylation systems. Finally, we demonstrate an association between DNA methylation and the long-term evolutionary conservation of genes. Overall, our findings strongly suggest DNA methylation is present at particularly high levels in termites and may play similar roles to those found in other insects.