Jacob J. Herman | Sonia E. Sultan

Environmental stresses experienced by individual parents can influence offspring phenotypes in ways that enhance survival under similar conditions. Although such adaptive transgenerational plasticity is well documented, its transmission mechanisms are generally unknown. One possible mechanism is environmentally induced DNA methylation changes. We tested this hypothesis in the annual plant Polygonum persicaria, a species known to
express adaptive transgenerational plasticity in response to parental drought stress. Replicate plants of 12 genetic lines (sampled from natural populations) were grown in dry versus moist soil. Their offspring were exposed to the demethylating agent zebularine or to control conditions during germination and then grown in dry soil. Under control germination conditions, the offspring of drought-stressed parents grew longer root systems and attained greater biomass compared with offspring of well-watered parents of the same genetic lines. Demethylation removed these adaptive developmental effects of parental drought, but did not significantly alter phenotypic expression in offspring of well-watered parents. The effect of demethylation on the expression of the parental drought effect varied among genetic lines. Differential seed provisioning did not contribute to the effect of parental drought on offspring phenotypes. These results demonstrate that DNA methylation can mediate adaptive, genotype-specific effects of parental stress on offspring phenotypes.