Background: Domestication of animals leads to large phenotypic alterations within a short evolutionary time-period. Such alterations are caused by genomic variations, yet the prevalence of modified traits is higher than expected if they were caused only by classical genetics and mutations. Epigenetic mechanisms may also be important in driving domesticated phenotypes such as behavior traits. Gene expression can be modulated epigenetically by mechanisms such as DNA methylation, resulting in modifications that are not only variable and susceptible to environmental stimuli, but also sometimes transgenerationally stable. To study such mechanisms in early domestication, we used as model two selected lines of red junglefowl (ancestors of modern chickens) that were bred for either high or low fear of humans over five generations, and investigated differences in hypothalamic DNA methylation between the two populations.
Results: Twenty-two 1-kb windows were differentially methylated between the two selected lines at p < 0.05 after false discovery rate correction. The annotated functions of the genes within these windows indicated epigenetic regulation of metabolic and signaling pathways, which agrees with the changes in gene expression that were previously reported for the same tissue and animals.
Conclusions: Our results show that selection for an important domestication-related behavioral trait such as tameness can cause divergent epigenetic patterns within only five generations, and that these changes could have an important role in chicken domestication.