The dynamic nature of DNA methylation: a role in response to social and seasonal variation

Integr Comp Biol. 2014 Jul;54(1):68-76. doi: 10.1093/icb/icu034. Epub 2014 May 10.


An organism's ability to adapt to its environment depends on its ability to regulate and maintain tissue specific, temporal patterns of gene transcription in response to specific environmental cues. Epigenetic mechanisms are responsible for many of the intricacies of a gene's regulation that alter expression patterns without affecting the genetic sequence. In particular, DNA methylation has been shown to have an important role in regulating early development and in some human diseases. Within these domains, DNA methylation has been extensively characterized over the past 60 years, but the discovery of its role in regulating behavioral outcomes has led to renewed interest in its potential roles in animal behavior and phenotypic plasticity. The conservation of DNA methylation across the animal kingdom suggests a possible role in the plasticity of genomic responses to environmental cues in natural environments. Here, we review the historical context for the study of DNA methylation, its function and mechanisms, and provide examples of gene/environment interactions in response to social and seasonal cues. Finally, we discuss useful tools to interrogate and dissect the function of DNA methylation in non-model organisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • DNA Methylation / physiology*
  • Environment*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / physiology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Seasons*
  • Social Environment*