Epigenetics of host-pathogen interactions: the road ahead and the road behind

PLoS Pathog. 2012;8(11):e1003007. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003007. Epub 2012 Nov 29.


A growing body of evidence points towards epigenetic mechanisms being responsible for a wide range of biological phenomena, from the plasticity of plant growth and development to the nutritional control of caste determination in honeybees and the etiology of human disease (e.g., cancer). With the (partial) elucidation of the molecular basis of epigenetic variation and the heritability of certain of these changes, the field of evolutionary epigenetics is flourishing. Despite this, the role of epigenetics in shaping host-pathogen interactions has received comparatively little attention. Yet there is plenty of evidence supporting the implication of epigenetic mechanisms in the modulation of the biological interaction between hosts and pathogens. The phenotypic plasticity of many key parasite life-history traits appears to be under epigenetic control. Moreover, pathogen-induced effects in host phenotype may have transgenerational consequences, and the bases of these changes and their heritability probably have an epigenetic component. The significance of epigenetic modifications may, however, go beyond providing a mechanistic basis for host and pathogen plasticity. Epigenetic epidemiology has recently emerged as a promising area for future research on infectious diseases. In addition, the incorporation of epigenetic inheritance and epigenetic plasticity mechanisms to evolutionary models and empirical studies of host-pathogen interactions will provide new insights into the evolution and coevolution of these associations. Here, we review the evidence available for the role epigenetics on host-pathogen interactions, and the utility and versatility of the epigenetic technologies available that can be cross-applied to host-pathogen studies. We conclude with recommendations and directions for future research on the burgeoning field of epigenetics as applied to host-pathogen interactions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions*
  • Humans
  • Quantitative Trait Loci*

Grant support

EG-D was supported by a Juan de la Cierva contract from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation and a Marie Curie reintegration grant from the European Commission (ERG-2010-276838). Research in MJ and MAP lab was supported by grants from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (SAF2011/23638, and CSD2006/49), Generalitat de Catalunya (2009 SGR 1356), and Fundación Salud 2000. AR was financed by the CNRS (France). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.