Epigenetic variation in the Egfr gene generates quantitative variation in a complex trait in ants

Nat Commun. 2015 Mar 11;6:6513. doi: 10.1038/ncomms7513.


Complex quantitative traits, like size and behaviour, are a pervasive feature of natural populations. Quantitative trait variation is the product of both genetic and environmental factors, yet little is known about the mechanisms through which their interaction generates this variation. Epigenetic processes, such as DNA methylation, can mediate gene-by-environment interactions during development to generate discrete phenotypic variation. We therefore investigated the developmental role of DNA methylation in generating continuous size variation of workers in an ant colony, a key trait associated with division of labour. Here we show that, in the carpenter ant Camponotus floridanus, global (genome-wide) DNA methylation indirectly regulates quantitative methylation of the conserved cell-signalling gene Epidermal growth factor receptor to generate continuous size variation of workers. DNA methylation can therefore generate quantitative variation in a complex trait by quantitatively regulating the transcription of a gene. This mechanism, alongside genetic variation, may determine the phenotypic possibilities of loci for generating quantitative trait variation in natural populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ants / genetics*
  • Body Size / genetics*
  • DNA Methylation
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • ErbB Receptors / genetics*
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genotype
  • Insect Proteins / genetics*
  • Larva / genetics
  • Phenotype
  • Quantitative Trait Loci
  • Quantitative Trait, Heritable*


  • Insect Proteins
  • ErbB Receptors