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Keywords:

  • adaptation;
  • climate change;
  • conservation biology;
  • conservation genetics;
  • epigenetics;
  • evolutionary theory;
  • phenotypic plasticity

Abstract

Nongenetic inheritance is a potentially important but poorly understood factor in population responses to rapid environmental change. Accumulating evidence indicates that nongenetic inheritance influences a diverse array of traits in all organisms and can allow for the transmission of environmentally induced phenotypic changes (‘acquired traits’), as well as spontaneously arising and highly mutable variants. We review models of adaptation to changing environments under the assumption of a broadened model of inheritance that incorporates nongenetic mechanisms of transmission, and survey relevant empirical examples. Theory suggests that nongenetic inheritance can increase the rate of both phenotypic and genetic change and, in some cases, alter the direction of change. Empirical evidence shows that a diversity of phenotypes – spanning a continuum from adaptive to pathological – can be transmitted nongenetically. The presence of nongenetic inheritance therefore complicates our understanding of evolutionary responses to environmental change. We outline a research program encompassing experimental studies that test for transgenerational effects of a range of environmental factors, followed by theoretical and empirical studies on the population-level consequences of such effects.