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J Evol Biol. 2019 Dec;32(12):1391-1405. doi: 10.1111/jeb.13535. Epub 2019 Oct 13.

The adaptive value of epigenetic mutation: Limited in large but high in small peripheral populations.

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School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA.
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID, USA.


The fate of populations during range expansions, invasions and environmental changes is largely influenced by their ability to adapt to peripheral habitats. Recent models demonstrate that stable epigenetic modifications of gene expression that occur more frequently than genetic mutations can both help and hinder adaptation in panmictic populations. However, these models do not consider interactions between epimutations and evolutionary forces in peripheral populations. Here, we use mainland-island mathematical models and simulations to explore how the faster rate of epigenetic mutation compared to genetic mutations interacts with migration, selection and genetic drift to affect adaptation in peripheral populations. Our model focuses on cases where epigenetic marks are stably inherited. In a large peripheral population, where the effect of genetic drift is negligible, our analyses suggest that epimutations with random fitness impacts that occur at rates as high as 10-3 increase local adaptation when migration is strong enough to overwhelm divergent selection. When migration is weak relative to selection and epimutations with random fitness impacts decrease adaptation, we find epigenetic modifications must be highly adaptively biased to enhance adaptation. Finally, in small peripheral populations, where genetic drift is strong, epimutations contribute to adaptation under a wider range of evolutionary conditions. Overall, our results suggest that epimutations can change outcomes of adaptation in peripheral populations, which has implications for understanding conservation and range expansions and contractions, especially of small populations.


epigenetic mutation; local adaptation; peripheral populations


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