Transgenerational epigenetic effects on animal behaviour

Prog Biophys Mol Biol. 2013 Dec;113(3):447-54. doi: 10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2013.01.001. Epub 2013 Jan 28.


Over the last decade a shift in paradigm has occurred with respect to the interaction between environment and genes. It is now clear that animal genomes are regulated to a large extent as a result of input from environmental events and experiences, which cause short- and long-term modifications in epigenetic markings of DNA and histones. In this review, the evidence that such epigenetic modifications can affect the behaviour of animals is explored, and whether such acquired behaviour alterations can transfer across generation borders. First, the mechanisms by which experiences cause epigenetic modifications are examined. This includes, for example, methylation of cytosine in CpG positions and acetylation of histones, and studies showing that this can be modified by early experiences. Secondly, the evidence that specific modifications in the epigenome can be the cause of behaviour variation is reviewed. Thirdly, the extent to which this phenotypically active epigenetic variants can be inherited either through the germline or through reoccurring environmental conditions is examined. A particularly interesting observation is that epigenetic modifications are often linked to stress, and may possibly be mediated by steroid effects. Finally, the idea that transgenerationally stable epigenetic variants may serve as substrates for natural selection is explored, and it is speculated that they may even predispose for directed, non-random mutations.

Keywords: Behaviour; Epigenetics; Methylation; Stress.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Humans
  • Inheritance Patterns / genetics*
  • Stress, Physiological / genetics
  • Stress, Psychological / genetics