A while ago I wrote a bit about the recent paper on epigenetic inheritance of acetophenone sensitivity and odorant receptor expression. I spent most of the post talking about potential problems, but actually I’m not that negative. There is quite a literature building up about these transgenerational effects, that is quite inspiring if a little overhyped. I for one do not think epigenetic inheritance is particularly outrageous or disrupting to genetics and evolution as we know it. Take this paper: even if it means inheritance of an acquired trait, it is probably not very stable over the generations, and it is nothing like a general Lamarckian transmission mechanism that can work for any trait. It is probably very specific for odourant receptors. It might allow for genetic assimilation of fear of odours though, which would be cool, but probably not at all easy to demonstrate. But no-one knows how it works, if it does — there are even multiple unknown steps. How does fear conditioning translate to DNA methylation differences sperm that translates to olfactory receptor expression in the brain of the offspring?
A while after the transgenerational effects paper I saw this one in PNAS: Rare event of histone demethylation can initiate singular gene expression of olfactory receptors (Tan, Song & Xie 2013). I had no idea olfactory receptor expression was that fascinating! (As is often the case when you scratch the surface of another problem in biology, there turns out to be interesting stuff there …) Mice have lots and lots of odorant receptor genes, but each olfactory neuron only expresses one of them. Apparently the expression is regulated by histone 3 lycine 9 methylation. The genes start out methylated and suppressed, but once one of them is expressed it will keep all other down by downregulating a histone demethylase. This is a modeling paper that shows that if random demethylation happens slowly enough and the feedback to shut down further demethylation is fast enough, these steps are sufficient to explain the specificity of expression. There are some connections between histone methylation and DNA methylation: it seems that DNA methylation binds proteins that bring histone methylases to the gene (review Cedar & Bergman 2009). Dias & Ressler saw hypomethylation near the olfactory receptor gene in question, Olfr151. Maybe that difference, if it survives through to the developing brain of the offspring, can make demethylation of the locus more likely and give Olfr151 a head start in the race to become the first expressed receptor gene.
Brian G Dias & Kerry J Ressler (2013) Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations Nature neuroscience doi:10.1038/nn.3594
Longzhi Tan, Chenghang Zong, X. Sunney Xie (2013) Rare event of histone demethylation can initiate singular gene expression of olfactory receptors. PNAS 10.1073/pnas.1321511111
Howard Cedar, Yehudit Bergman (2009) Linking DNA methylation and histone modification: patterns and paradigms. Nature reviews genetics doi:10.1038/nrg2540