Epigenetic mechanisms underlying responses to environmental stress

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Biology


Animals face challenges of environmental stress from many sources, such as temperature, nutrition, toxins, disease and social interactions. These stresses can be variable and unpredictable, acute or long lasting. The impact of stressors on the individual may be negative and reduce future lifespan but alternatively mild stressors may increase resilience to subsequent stress (hormesis).To combat these stresses individuals can be plastic in their behaviour or physiology, but the mechanisms that underlie these processes are not well understood. The epigenome (marks on the genome that alter the accessibility of DNA for transcription) is environmentally sensitive and modified epigenetic states can have long lasting effects on the individual. Hence the epigenome may be a key mechanism that determines how individuals respond to current and future stressors.

1) Stressors alter the epigenome.
2) Alterations in response to one stressor affect the response to other stressors.
3) Species with different epigenome modifiers respond differently to the same stressor.

Objectives/ Experimental approach
1. Identify common responses across different stressors (temperature, starvation, desiccation, crowding) in a range of insect systems (Drosophila fruit flies, Indian meal moths, bees, aphids) and assess how these stressors interact.
2. Use chemical inhibitors to establish classes of epigenetic modifiers important in stress responses.
3. Use transgenic flies to determine the role of specific modifiers.
4. Examine how stresses alter epigenetic states and gene regulation using a combination of ChIP-seq and RNAseq.

There is growing interest in how the epigenome enables the genome to be environmentally sensitive and the realisation that the impacts of stressors should not be assessed in isolation. It seeks to translate these findings from a lab model to non-model species that are of direct agricultural relevance. It capitalizes on the current work by Bretman and Duncan on behavioural epigenetics in response to social stress.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M011151/1 30/09/2015 29/09/2023
2272008 Studentship BB/M011151/1 30/09/2019 31/12/2023 Claire Smithson