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Extra-Genetic Inheritance and Evolution

Evolutionary Biology
Parents pass on a wide range of developmental resources to their offspring through the egg, the placenta and via postnatal provisioning. Behavioral interactions are also important, with social learning being common in both invertebrates and vertebrates. While the transfer of DNA is known as genetic inheritance, other mechanisms that influence parent-offspring resemblance are collectively known as extra-genetic inheritance.

Collage with two lizards and a flowchart

Much of our research has focused on how extra-genetic inheritance evolves, in particular when it will provide a flexible means to pass on information between generations. For example, we have shown that incomplete epigenetic resetting between generations can be favored by natural selection if environments show a modest degree of variability and uncertainty. These and other model predictions can be tested empirically, which we do using field and laboratory experiments on water fleas.

Extra-genetic inheritance also serves as a source of phenotypic variation that – similarly to within-generation plasticity – can influence if and how populations adapt. Stress-induced parental effects may, over evolutionary time, be converted into phenotypes that are reliably inherited between generations. We are interested in trying to reveal signatures of this process in populations that have recently adapted to new environments, and our research involves both water fleas and lizards.

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If you want to know more

Uller, T. & Helanterä, H. 2017. Heredity in evolutionary theory. In Challenging the Modern Synthesis: Adaptation, Development & Inheritance (eds. P. Huneman & D. Walsh), Oxford University Press

Uller, T., English, S. & Pen, I. 2015. When does natural selection favour incomplete epigenetic resetting in germ cells? Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 282: 20150682

English, S., Pen, I.R., Shea, N. & Uller, T. 2015. The adaptive value of non-genetic inheritance in plants and insects. PLoS One 10(1): e0116996

Uller, T., Nakagawa, S. & English, S. 2013. Weak evidence for anticipatory parental effects in plants and animals. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 26:2161-2170

Badyaev, A. V & Uller, T. 2009. Parental effects in ecology and evolution: Mechanisms, processes, and implications. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 364: 1169-1177