EpiDiverse research aims

The capacity of plants to adapt to their environments is key to their success in a world that is constantly changing. Individual plants can adjust to environmental change by being flexible in the traits that they express in different environments (phenotypic plasticity). Over longer time scales populations can adapt to specific environments by selection on heritable traits, resulting for instance in populations with modified flowering time, drought tolerance, or different capacity for phenotypic plasticity. Epigenetic mechanisms play an important role in these processes. Epigenetic mechanisms are reversible chemical modifications of the DNA code that determine if the underlying DNA code is active or silenced. These mechanisms can play a role in the adjustment of gene expression in response to specific environments. Moreover, epigenetic variants exist in plants that are stable between generations, which can lead to differences in heritable traits even between genetically uniform plants.

Thus, to understand the adaptive capacity of plants, we need to look not only at the information within the DNA code, but also at the epigenetic information on top of the DNA code. Much of our current knowledge of DNA methylation in plants comes from research on the molecular model plant species Arabidopsis thaliana. But it is unclear how important epigenetic variation is in the wild for the adaptive capacity of natural plant populations in various ecological contexts. To what extent do epigenetic responses control ecologically relevant stress responses and heritable traits? Do patterns of epigenetic variation in natural populations reflect an important epigenetic role in adaptive capacity? And is the role of epigenetics different for species that differ in important life history traits, such as sexual versus clonal reproduction or in annual versus long-lived species? These are the research questions that EpiDiverse takes on.

The EpiDiverse research applies high-resolution epigenomic research tools and ecological experimental designs to an ecologically diverse set of natural plant species, with the ultimate aim to expose the contribution of epigenetic variation to the adaptive capacity of plants.

Specific research objectives of the network are to:

  1. Optimize genomic and bioinformatic tools to enable high-resolution DNA methylation analysis in non-model plant species
  2. Identify natural patterns of DNA methylaiton variation and its associations with phenotype, local environment, climate and geographic location
  3. Unravel the underlying molecular mechanisms of epigenetic responses to ecologically relevant stress environments.