Epigenetics for ecologists


*E-mail: oliver.bossdorf@ufz.de


There is now mounting evidence that heritable variation in ecologically relevant traits can be generated through a suite of epigenetic mechanisms, even in the absence of genetic variation. Moreover, recent studies indicate that epigenetic variation in natural populations can be independent from genetic variation, and that in some cases environmentally induced epigenetic changes may be inherited by future generations. These novel findings are potentially highly relevant to ecologists because they could significantly improve our understanding of the mechanisms underlying natural phenotypic variation and the responses of organisms to environmental change. To understand the full significance of epigenetic processes, however, it is imperative to study them in an ecological context. Ecologists should therefore start using a combination of experimental approaches borrowed from ecological genetics, novel techniques to analyse and manipulate epigenetic variation, and genomic tools, to investigate the extent and structure of epigenetic variation within and among natural populations, as well as the interrelations between epigenetic variation, phenotypic variation and ecological interactions.