Epigenomic plasticity within populations: its evolutionary significance and potential
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To link to this article DOI: 10.1038/hdy.2010.25
Epigenetics has progressed rapidly from an obscure quirk of heredity into a data-heavy ‘omic’ science. Our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of epigenomic regulation, and the extent of its importance in nature, are far from complete, but in spite of such drawbacks, population-level studies are extremely valuable: epigenomic regulation is involved in several processes central to evolutionary biology including phenotypic plasticity, evolvability and the mediation of intragenomic conflicts. The first studies of epigenomic variation within populations suggest high levels of phenotypically relevant variation, with the patterns of epigenetic regulation varying between individuals and genome regions as well as with environment. Epigenetic mechanisms appear to function primarily as genome defences, but result in the maintenance of plasticity together with a degree of buffering of developmental programmes; periodic breakdown of epigenetic buffering could potentially cause variation in rates of phenotypic evolution.