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Inheritance of Acquired Behaviour Adaptions and Brain Gene Expression in Chickens
Linköping University, Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, Zoology . Linköping University, The Institute of Technology.
Paul-Flechsig-Institute for Brain Research, University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany.
Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.
Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.
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2009 (English)In: PLoS ONE, ISSN 1932-6203, Vol. 4, no 7, e6405- p.Article, review/survey (Other academic) Published
Abstract [en]

Background: Environmental challenges may affect both the exposed individuals and their offspring. We investigated possible adaptive aspects of such cross-generation transmissions, and hypothesized that chronic unpredictable food access would cause chickens to show a more conservative feeding strategy and to be more dominant, and that these adaptations would be transmitted to the offspring.

Methodology/Principal Findings: Parents were raised in an unpredictable (UL) or in predictable diurnal light rhythm (PL, 12:12 h light:dark). In a foraging test, UL birds pecked more at freely available, rather than at hidden and more attractive food, compared to birds from the PL group. Female offspring of UL birds, raised in predictable light conditions without parental contact, showed a similar foraging behavior, differing from offspring of PL birds. Furthermore, adult offspring of UL birds performed more food pecks in a dominance test, showed a higher preference for high energy food, survived better, and were heavier than offspring of PL parents. Using cDNA microarrays, we found that the differential brain gene expression caused by the challenge was mirrored in the offspring. In particular, several immunoglobulin genes seemed to be affected similarly in both UL parents and their offspring. Estradiol levels were significantly higher in egg yolk from UL birds, suggesting one possible mechanism for these effects.

Conclusions/Significance: Our findings suggest that unpredictable food access caused seemingly adaptive responses in feeding behavior, which may have been transmitted to the offspring by means of epigenetic mechanisms, including regulation of immune genes. This may have prepared the offspring for coping with an unpredictable environment.

Citation: Nätt D, Lindqvist N, Stranneheim H, Lundeberg J, Torjesen PA, et al. (2009) Inheritance of Acquired Behaviour Adaptations and Brain Gene Expression in Chickens. PLoS ONE 4(7): e6405. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006405

Editor: Tom Pizzari, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Received: March 26, 2009; Accepted: June 30, 2009; Published: July 28, 2009

Copyright: © 2009 Nätt et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Funding: This project was funded by the Swedish Research Council (VR;; grant nrs 50280101 and 50280102) and the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas;; grant no 221-2005-270). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the mauscript.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2009. Vol. 4, no 7, e6405- p.
National Category
Biological Sciences
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-19948DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006405OAI: diva2:232010
Original Publication: Daniel Nätt, Niclas Lindqvist, Henrik Stranneheim, Joakim Lundeberg, Peter A. Torjesen and Per Jensen, Inheritance of Acquired Behaviour Adaptions and Brain Gene Expression in Chickens, 2009, PLoS ONE, (4), 7, e6405. Copyright: Authors Available from: 2009-08-25 Created: 2009-08-19 Last updated: 2011-08-22Bibliographically approved
In thesis
1. Heritable epigenetic responses to environmental challenges: Effects on behaviour, gene expression and DNA-methylation in the chicken
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Heritable epigenetic responses to environmental challenges: Effects on behaviour, gene expression and DNA-methylation in the chicken
2011 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Phenotypic variation within populations is a crucial factor in evolution and is mainly thought to be driven by heritable changes in the base sequence of DNA. Among our domesticated species we find some of the most variable species on earth today. This variety of breeds has appeared during a relatively short evolutionary time, and so far genetic studies have been unable to explain but a small portion of this variation, which indicates more novel mechanisms of inheritance and phenotypic plasticity. The aim of this study was therefore to investigate some of these alternative routes in the chicken, especially focusing on transgenerational effects of environmental challenges on behaviour and gene expression in relation to domestication. In two experiments a chronically unpredictable environment induced phenotypic changes in the parents that were mirrored in the unexposed offspring raised without parental contact. This transmission was especially clear in domesticated birds. A third experiment showed that repeated stress events very early in life could change the developmental program making the birds more resistant to stress later in life. Here, the phenotypic changes were also mirrored in the unexposed offspring and associated with inheritance of gene expression. Epigenetic factors, such as DNA-methylation, could play an important role in the mechanism of these transgenerational effects. A fourth experiment showed that wild types and domesticated chickens differed substantially in their patterns of DNA-methylation, where the domesticated breed had increased amount of promoter DNA-methylation. In line with the previous experiments, this breed also showed increased transmission of methylation marks to their  offspring. Conclusively, parental exposure of environmental challenges that introduce changes in behaviour, physiology and gene expression can under both chronic and temporal conditions be heritably programmed in the parent and transmitted to the unexposed offspring. Since heritable epigenetic variation between wild type and domesticated chickens is stable and numerous, it is possible that selection for favourable epigenomes could add another level to the evolutionary processes and therefore might explain some of the rapid changes in the history of the domesticated chicken. 

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2011. 53 p.
Linköping Studies in Science and Technology. Dissertations, ISSN 0345-7524 ; 1383
National Category
Natural Sciences
urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-70155 (URN)978-91-7393-123-6 (ISBN)
Public defence
2011-09-16, Planck, Fysikhuset, Campus Valla, Linköpings universitet, Linköping, 09:15 (English)
Available from: 2011-08-22 Created: 2011-08-22 Last updated: 2011-08-29Bibliographically approved

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