"For each line, we were able to look at about 14 million cytosines," said Claude Becker, a member of the Tbingen team. On average, every plant had almost 3 million methylated cytosines. The vast majority of these were the same in all lines, but about 6 percent had changed since the lines had become separated. At these positions, at least one of the individuals was different, with either methylation gained or lost relative to the ancestor. Each of the lines had about 30,000 such epimutations, which was 1,000 times more than DNA mutations.
With 30,000 epimutations after 30 generations, the geneticists had expected that 1,000 epimutations occurred in each generation. When they directly compared parents and their immediate offspring, they were surprised to find that the epimutation rate was three to four times as high. The scientists concluded that many epimutations are apparently not stable and return to their original state after a few generations. Thus, averaging the mutation rate over many generations is misleading. Becker's colleague Jrg Hagmann therefore cautions not to overestimate the importance of DNA methylation during evolution: "Our experiments show that methylation changes are often reversible". In other words: New epimutations are often not maintained over the long term. "Only when selection wins out over reversion can these epimutations affect evolution," says Hagmann. A new epimutation thus must have a strong evolutionary advantage so that it can become established before being lost again. Because reverse mutations do not necessarily happen in the next generation, it is still possible that epigenetic differences contribute to inheritance of traits between parents and their children or grandparents and their grandchildren.
Another difference to ordinary mutations is that epimutations do not occur ra
|Contact: Detlef Weigel|