An evolutionary view of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance

This 2020 Swiss/German review mainly cited weed, worm, and yeast studies:

“RNA interference-related mechanisms can mediate the deposition and transgenerational inheritance of specific chromatin modifications in a truly epigenetic fashion.

Epigenetics was initially defined as any heritable change in gene expression patterns without changes in the DNA sequence. Now, epigenetic phenomena are often characterized as ‘gene expression changes that are mutation independent and heritable in the absence of the triggering event’, a definition we will follow in this review. We note that this definition can be expanded to include protein only-based inheritance mechanisms that do not necessarily cause changes in gene expression.

Gene silencing can persist over multiple generations in the germline of C. elegans. Gene repression is typically maintained without the initial trigger for three to seven generations and occasionally for tens of generations. In contrast, silencing of somatically expressed genes mostly affects only the subsequent generation through nonepigenetic parental effects.

In the presence of an ‘enabling’ mutation, primary siRNAs [small interfering RNAs] can trigger an RNAe [RNA-induced epigenetic silencing] response. Secondary siRNA amplification is required for transgenerational inheritance.

The fitness of a population in a dynamic environment strongly depends on the ability of individuals to adapt to the new condition as well as to remember, inherit, and forget such adaptation:

  • (A) A well-adapted population (grey) is at its maximal density (dotted line) in a given niche until an environmental change (1st stress) creates a bottleneck. Only few individuals can adapt through mutations and repopulate the niche. After the environment changes back to the initial blue state, only individuals that acquire rare counteracting mutations survive, often leading to extinction of the population.
  • (B) Individuals of a population in the red state can gain beneficial epimutations through siRNAs and repopulate the niche. When exposed again to the blue state, the epimutations can be quickly reversed and the population rapidly reaches maximal density. After recurrence of the red state, organisms establish de novo epimutations with the same low frequency as when they first encountered this state.
  • (C) In contrast, organisms that can maintain the memory of a beneficial silencing event can quickly re-establish beneficial epimutations and grow to full density. Such memory can be maintained by phenotypically neutral epimutations, marked by the continuously high production of siRNAs without substantial reductions in the expression of a gene. A population that can adapt through phenotypically plastic epimutations is predicted to have a maximal fitness advantage in a dynamic environment.”

The Concluding Remarks section included:

“RNA-mediated epigenetic responses could contribute to adaptation.

Even though RNAe may yield significant adaptive advantages, a high induction frequency could cause silencing of multiple essential genes and therefore be detrimental. Hence, it is plausible that mechanisms would have coevolved that counteract silencing.

Similarly, if constituting a bet-hedging strategy to cope with ever-changing environments, permanent fixation of an acquired silencing response would not constitute a selective advantage and mechanisms that modify and limit the duration of RNAe would be predicted.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168952519302598 “Small RNAs in the Transgenerational Inheritance of Epigenetic Information”


The review’s arguments were based on evolutionary selective advantages and less-complex organisms. It predicted that there would be an endpoint generation as in the (A) case of the above graphic.

Were the mechanisms in the (B) case necessarily transgenerational throughout? The review further explained:

“Epimutations tend to occur in hot spots (e.g., in stress-related or nutritional pathway genes) and can potentially silence several homologous genes simultaneously. Incomplete penetrance of a beneficial epimutation by stochastic loss of siRNAs [59] can result in loss of adaptation in a given environment (red state), but can be beneficial if the previous blue state is re-established. However, when the environment changes back to the red state, epimutations must initiate de novo, at the same low frequency as when the population first encountered this state.”

The study cited at 59 found:

“A feedback between siRNAs and RNAi genes determines heritable silencing duration”

but not “Incomplete penetrance of a beneficial epimutation by stochastic loss of siRNAs.” Hmm.

In any event, the review stated:

“Evidence for naturally occurring RNAe-related phenomena in other animals is scarce and we should be cautious about inferring RNAe as a widely conserved phenomenon.”

It’s encouraging to read studies that find benefits to epigenetic transgenerational inheritance, albeit in organisms that are less complex than rodents and humans.

 

The epigenetics of perinatal stress

This 2019 McGill review discussed long-lasting effects of perinatal stress:

“Epigenetic processes are involved in embedding the impact of early-life experience in the genome and mediating between social environments and later behavioral phenotypes. Since these phenotypes are apparent a long time after the early experience, the changes in gene expression programming must be stable.

Although loss of methylation in a promoter is necessary for expression, it is not sufficient. Demethylation removes a barrier for expression, but expression might be realized at the right time or context when the needed factors or signals are present.

DNA methylation anticipates future transcriptional response to triggers. Comparing steady-state expression with DNA methylation does not capture the full meaning and scope of the regulatory roles of differential methylation.

A model for epigenetic programming by early life stress:

  1. Perinatal stress perceived by the brain triggers release of glucocorticoids (GC) from the adrenal in the mother prenatally or the newborn postnatally.
  2. GC activate nuclear glucocorticoid receptors across the body, which epigenetically program (demethylate) genes that are targets of GR in brain and white blood cells (WBC).
  3. The demethylation events are insufficient for activation of these genes. A brain specific factor (TF) is required for expression and will activate low expression of the gene in the brain but not in blood.
  4. During adulthood a stressful event transiently triggers a very high level of expression of the GR regulated gene specifically in the brain.

Horizontal arrow, transcription; circles, CpG sites; CH3 in circles, methylated sites; empty circles, unmethylated CpG sites; horizon[t]al curved lines, mRNA.”

Points discussed in the review:

  • “Epigenetic marks are laid down and maintained by enzymes that either add or remove epigenetic modifications and are therefore potentially reversible in contrast to genetic changes.
  • The response to early life stress and maternal behavior is also not limited to the brain and involves at least the immune system as well.
  • The placenta is also impacted by maternal social experience and early life stress.
  • Most studies are limited to peripheral tissues such as saliva and white blood cells, and the relevance to brain physiology and pathology is uncertain.
  • The low absolute differences in methylation seen in most human behavioral EWAS raise questions about their biological significance.

  • Although post-mortem studies examine epigenetic programming in physiologically relevant tissues, they represent only a final and single stage that does not capture the dynamic evolution of environments and epigenetic programming in living humans.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6952743/ “The epigenetics of perinatal stress”


Other reviewers try to ignore the times when we were all fetuses and newborns. For example, in the same journal issue was a Boston review of PTSD that didn’t mention anything about the earliest times of human lives! Those reviewers speculated around this obvious gap on their way to being paid by NIH.

Why would researchers ignore perinatal stress events that prime humans for later-life PTSD? Stress generally has a greater impact on fetuses and newborns than even infants, and a greater impact on infants than adults.

Masters of manipulating their host

This 2020 French review subject was parasitical influences on host epigenetic processes:

“Parasites have become masters of manipulating their host cells, exploiting signaling, and metabolic pathways to hijack host gene expression to their own advantage. These intracellular parasites have developed a wide range of strategies that affect transcriptional machineries and epigenetic events in the host cell nucleus.

Parasite effectors regulate host transcription. Secretion of numerous parasite effector proteins are key processes during parasite infection. Parasite effectors deregulate host expression profile which lead to host cell transformation, or escape from the host immune system to allow parasite persistence and survival.”

parasites
The first two of the six strategies discussed are shown above:

  1. “Induction of a host epigenetic enzyme. Parasite infection leads to upregulation of SMYD3, a methyltransferase that activates genes involved in host transformation, through H3K4 trimethylation.
  2. Secreting effector proteins that drive epigenetic repression of host genes. TEEGR activates a host chromatin modifier able to repress transcription of immune system genes through H3K27 trimethylation.”

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00281-020-00779-z “The clever strategies used by intracellular parasites to hijack host gene expression” (not freely available)


I developed a “parasites” paradigm while living in the Washington DC area for three decades to understand what goes on there. Moved several years ago, but not far enough away to change my thinking that all six parasite strategies had analogous human actions.

Other curated papers that explored the review’s topic include:

Trained immunity responses to bacterial infections

This 2019 Swiss rodent study investigated immune responses to five types of bacterial infections:

“The innate immune system recalls a challenge to adapt to a secondary challenge, a phenomenon called trained immunity. Trained immunity protected mice from a large panel of clinically relevant bacterial pathogens inoculated systematically and locally to induce peritonitis, enteritis and pneumonia.

Induction of trained immunity remodeled bone marrow and blood cellular compartments, providing efficient barriers against bacterial infections. Protection was remarkably broad when considering the pathogens and sites of infection tested.

We are running experiments to delineate the length of protection conferred by trained immunity. Trained immunity is most typically induced with β-glucan.

Mice were injected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Trained mice survived better than control mice (31% vs. 0% survival) and had 10-fold less bacteria in blood 2 days post-infection.

Mice were challenged with a lethal dose of Listeria monocytogenes. Most strikingly, all trained mice survived infection while all control mice died within 5 days. Bacteria were not detected in blood collected from trained mice 2 and 3 days post-infection.”


One of the coauthors also published:

https://academic.oup.com/jid/advance-article/doi/10.1093/infdis/jiz692/5691195 “Trained immunity confers broad-spectrum protection against bacterial infections”

Clearing out the 2019 queue of interesting papers

I’m clearing out the below queue of 27 studies and reviews I’ve partially read this year but haven’t taken the time to curate. I have a pesky full-time job that demands my presence elsewhere during the day. :-\

Should I add any of these back in? Let’s be ready for the next decade!


Early life

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12035-018-1328-x “Early Behavioral Alterations and Increased Expression of Endogenous Retroviruses Are Inherited Across Generations in Mice Prenatally Exposed to Valproic Acid” (not freely available)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432818309392 “Consolidation of an aversive taste memory requires two rounds of transcriptional and epigenetic regulation in the insular cortex” (not freely available)

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-018-0265-4 “Intergenerational transmission of depression: clinical observations and molecular mechanisms” (not freely available)

mother

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6454089/ “Epigenomics and Transcriptomics in the Prediction and Diagnosis of Childhood Asthma: Are We There Yet?”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6628997/Placental epigenetic clocks: estimating gestational age using placental DNA methylation levels”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770436/ “Mismatched Prenatal and Postnatal Maternal Depressive Symptoms and Child Behaviours: A Sex-Dependent Role for NR3C1 DNA Methylation in the Wirral Child Health and Development Study”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0889159119306440 “Environmental influences on placental programming and offspring outcomes following maternal immune activation”

https://academic.oup.com/mutage/article-abstract/34/4/315/5581970 “5-Hydroxymethylcytosine in cord blood and associations of DNA methylation with sex in newborns” (not freely available)

https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1113/JP278270 “Paternal diet impairs F1 and F2 offspring vascular function through sperm and seminal plasma specific mechanisms in mice”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/nmo.13751 “Sex differences in the epigenetic regulation of chronic visceral pain following unpredictable early life stress” (not freely available)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6811979/ “Genome-wide DNA methylation data from adult brain following prenatal immune activation and dietary intervention”

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00702-019-02048-2miRNAs in depression vulnerability and resilience: novel targets for preventive strategies”


Later life

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6543991/ “Effect of Flywheel Resistance Training on Balance Performance in Older Adults. A Randomized Controlled Trial”

https://www.mdpi.com/2411-5142/4/3/61/htm “Eccentric Overload Flywheel Training in Older Adults”

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41577-019-0151-6 “Epigenetic regulation of the innate immune response to infection” (not freely available)

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-13-6123-4_1 “Hair Cell Regeneration” (not freely available)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6422915/Histone Modifications as an Intersection Between Diet and Longevity”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306453019300733 “Serotonin transporter gene methylation predicts long-term cortisol concentrations in hair” (not freely available)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0047637419300338 “Frailty biomarkers in humans and rodents: Current approaches and future advances” (not freely available)

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/pcn.12901 “Neural mechanisms underlying adaptive and maladaptive consequences of stress: Roles of dopaminergic and inflammatory responses

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627480/ “In Search of Panacea—Review of Recent Studies Concerning Nature-Derived Anticancer Agents”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0028390819303363 “Reversal of oxycodone conditioned place preference by oxytocin: Promoting global DNA methylation in the hippocampus” (not freely available)

https://www.futuremedicine.com/doi/10.2217/epi-2019-0102 “Different epigenetic clocks reflect distinct pathophysiological features of multiple sclerosis”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6834159/ “The Beige Adipocyte as a Therapy for Metabolic Diseases”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S8756328219304077 “Bone adaptation: safety factors and load predictability in shaping skeletal form” (not freely available)

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-019-0549-3 “Successful treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder reverses DNA methylation marks” (not freely available)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0166223619301821 “Editing the Epigenome to Tackle Brain Disorders” (not freely available)

Using oxytocin receptor gene methylation to pursue an agenda

A pair of 2019 Virginia studies involved human mother/infant subjects:

“We show that OXTRm [oxytocin receptor gene DNA methylation] in infancy and its change is predicted by maternal engagement and reflective of behavioral temperament.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6795517 “Epigenetic dynamics in infancy and the impact of maternal engagement”

“Infants with higher OXTRm show enhanced responses to anger and fear and attenuated responses to happiness in right inferior frontal cortex, a region implicated in emotion processing through action-perception coupling.

Infant fNIRS [functional near-infrared spectroscopy] is limited to measuring responses from cerebral cortex..it is unknown whether OXTR is expressed in the cerebral cortex during prenatal and early postnatal human brain development.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187892931830207X “Epigenetic modification of the oxytocin receptor gene is associated with emotion processing in the infant brain”


Both studies had weak disclosures of limitations on their findings’ relevance and significance. The largest non-disclosed contrary finding was from the 2015 Early-life epigenetic regulation of the oxytocin receptor gene:

These results suggest that:

  • Blood Oxtr DNA methylation may reflect early experience of maternal care, and
  • Oxtr methylation across tissues is highly concordant for specific CpGs, but
  • Inferences across tissues are not supported for individual variation in Oxtr methylation.

This rat study found that blood OXTR methylation of 25 CpG sites couldn’t accurately predict the same 25 CpG sites’ OXTR methylation in each subject’s hippocampus, hypothalamus, and striatum (which includes the nucleus accumbens) brain areas. Without significant effects in these limbic system structures, there couldn’t be any associated behavioral effects.

But CpG site associations and correlations were deemed good in the two current studies because they cited:

“Recent work in prairie voles has found that both brain- and blood-derived OXTRm levels at these sites are negatively associated with gene expression in the brain and highly correlated with each other.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453018306103 “Early nurture epigenetically tunes the oxytocin receptor”

The 2018 prairie vole study – which included several of the same researchers as the two current studies – found four nucleus accumbens CpG sites that had high correlations to humans. Discarding one of these CpG sites allowed their statistics package to make a four-decimal place finding:

“The methylation state of the blood was also associated with the level of transcription in the brain at three of the four CpG sites..whole blood was capable of explaining 94.92% of the variance in Oxtr DNA methylation and 18.20% of the variance in Oxtr expression.”

Few limitations on the prairie vole study findings were disclosed. Like the two current studies, there wasn’t a limitation section that placed research findings into suitable contexts. So readers didn’t know researcher viewpoints on items such as:

  • What additional information showed that 3 of the 30+ million human CpGs accurately predicted specific brain OXTR methylation and expression from saliva OXTR methylation?
  • What additional information demonstrated how “measuring responses from cerebral cortex” although “it is unknown whether OXTR is expressed in the cerebral cortex” provided detailed and dependable estimates of limbic system CpG site OXTR methylation and expression?
  • Was the above 25-CpG study evidence considered?

Further contrast these three studies with a typical, four-point, 285-word limitation section of a study like Prenatal stress heightened adult chronic pain. The word “limit” appeared 6 times in that pain study, 3 times in the current fNIRS study, and 0 times in the current maternal engagement and cited prairie vole studies.

Frank interpretations of one’s own study findings to acknowledge limitations is one way researchers can address items upfront that will be questioned anyway. Such analyses also indicate a goal to advance science.

Prenatal stress heightened adult chronic pain

This 2019 McGill rodent study found:

Prenatal stress exacerbates pain after injury. Analysis of mRNA expression of genes related to epigenetic regulation and stress responses in the frontal cortex and hippocampus, brain structures implicated in chronic pain, showed distinct sex and region-specific patterns of dysregulation.

In general, mRNA expression was most frequently altered in the male hippocampus and effects of prenatal stress were more prevalent than effects of nerve injury. Recent studies investigating chronic pain-related pathology in the hippocampus in humans and in rodent models demonstrate functional abnormalities in the hippocampus, changes in associated behavior, and decreases in adult hippocampal neurogenesis.

The change in expression of epigenetic- and stress-related genes is not a consequence of nerve injury but rather precedes nerve injury, consistent with the hypothesis that it might play a causal role in modulating the phenotypic response to nerve injury. These findings demonstrate the impact of prenatal stress on behavioral sensitivity to a painful injury.

Decreased frontal mRNA expression of BDNF and BDNF IV in male offspring following neuropathic pain or prenatal stress respectively. Relative mRNA expression of other stress-related genes (GR17, FKBP5) and epigenetic-related genes (DNMTs, TETs, HDACs, MBDs, MeCP2) in male offspring.

A drastic decrease in expression of HDAC1 was observed in all groups compared to sham-control animals. CCI: chronic constriction injury.”


The study’s design was similar to the PRS (prenatal restraint stress) model, except that the PRS procedure covered gestational days 11 to 21 (birth):

“Prenatal stress was induced on Embryonic days 13 to 17 by restraining the pregnant dams in transparent cylinder with 5 mm water, under bright light exposure, 3 times per day for 45 min.”

None of the French, Italian, and Swiss PRS studies were cited.

The limitation section included:

  1. “Although our study shows significant changes in expression of epigenetic enzymes, it didn’t examine the impact of these changes on genes that are epigenetically regulated by this machinery or their involvement in intensifying pain responses.
  2. The current study is limited by the focus on changes in gene expression which do not necessarily correlate with changes in protein expression.
  3. Another limitation of this study is the inability to distinguish the direct effects of stress in utero vs. changes in the dam’s maternal behavior due to stress during pregnancy; cross-fostering studies are needed to address this issue.
  4. Functional experiments that involve up and down regulation of epigenetic enzymes in specific brain regions are required to establish a causal role for these processes in chronic pain.”

What do you think about possible human applicability of this study’s “effects of prenatal stress were more prevalent than effects of nerve injury” finding?

Are there any professional frameworks that instruct trainees to recognize that if a person’s mother was stressed while pregnant, their prenatal experiences could cause more prevalent biological and behavioral effects than a recent injury?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432819315219 “Prenatal maternal stress is associated with increased sensitivity to neuropathic pain and sex-specific changes in supraspinal mRNA expression of epigenetic- and stress-related genes in adulthood” (not freely available)