On the causes of gene-body methylation variation in Arabidopsis thaliana

PLoS Genet. 2023 May 4;19(5):e1010728. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1010728. eCollection 2023 May.


Gene-body methylation (gbM) refers to sparse CG methylation of coding regions, which is especially prominent in evolutionarily conserved house-keeping genes. It is found in both plants and animals, but is directly and stably (epigenetically) inherited over multiple generations in the former. Studies in Arabidopsis thaliana have demonstrated that plants originating from different parts of the world exhibit genome-wide differences in gbM, which could reflect direct selection on gbM, but which could also reflect an epigenetic memory of ancestral genetic and/or environmental factors. Here we look for evidence of such factors in F2 plants resulting from a cross between a southern Swedish line with low gbM and a northern Swedish line with high gbM, grown at two different temperatures. Using bisulfite-sequencing data with nucleotide-level resolution on hundreds of individuals, we confirm that CG sites are either methylated (nearly 100% methylation across sampled cells) or unmethylated (approximately 0% methylation across sampled cells), and show that the higher level of gbM in the northern line is due to more sites being methylated. Furthermore, methylation variants almost always show Mendelian segregation, consistent with their being directly and stably inherited through meiosis. To explore how the differences between the parental lines could have arisen, we focused on somatic deviations from the inherited state, distinguishing between gains (relative to the inherited 0% methylation) and losses (relative to the inherited 100% methylation) at each site in the F2 generation. We demonstrate that deviations predominantly affect sites that differ between the parental lines, consistent with these sites being more mutable. Gains and losses behave very differently in terms of the genomic distribution, and are influenced by the local chromatin state. We find clear evidence for different trans-acting genetic polymorphism affecting gains and losses, with those affecting gains showing strong environmental interactions (G×E). Direct effects of the environment were minimal. In conclusion, we show that genetic and environmental factors can change gbM at a cellular level, and hypothesize that these factors can also lead to transgenerational differences between individuals via the inclusion of such changes in the zygote. If true, this could explain genographic pattern of gbM with selection, and would cast doubt on estimates of epimutation rates from inbred lines in constant environments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Arabidopsis* / genetics
  • DNA Methylation / genetics
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Genes, Plant
  • Genomics / methods

Grants and funding

This work was supported in part by European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant 789037 to MN. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.