Epigenetics in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation
Epigenetic variation is often characterized by modifications to DNA that do not alter the underlying nucleotide sequence, but can influence behavior, morphology, and physiological phenotypes by affecting gene expression and protein synthesis. In this review, we consider how the emerging field of ecological epigenetics (eco-epi) aims to use epigenetic variation to explain ecologically relevant phenotypic variation and predict evolutionary trajectories that are important in conservation. Here, we focus on how epigenetic data have contributed to our understanding of wild populations, including plants, animals, and fungi. First, we identified published eco-epi literature and found that there was limited taxonomic and ecosystem coverage and that, by necessity of available technology, these studies have most often focused on the summarized epigenome rather than locus- or nucleotide-level epigenome characteristics. We also found that while many studies focused on adaptation and heritability of the epigenome, the field has thematically expanded into topics such as disease ecology and epigenome-based ageing of individuals. In the second part of our synthesis, we discuss key insights that have emerged from the epigenetic field broadly and use these to preview the path toward integration of epigenetics into ecology. Specifically, we suggest moving focus to nucleotide-level differences in the epigenome rather than whole-epigenome data and that we incorporate several facets of epigenome characterization (e.g., methylation, chromatin structure). Finally, we also suggest that incorporation of behavior and stress data will be critical to the process of fully integrating eco-epi data into ecology, conservation, and evolutionary biology.