Changes in the rearing environment cause reorganization of molecular networks associated with DNA methylation.
Disentangling the interaction between the genetic basis and environmental context underlying phenotypic variation is critical for understanding organismal evolution. Environmental change, such as increased rates of urbanization, can induce shifts in phenotypic plasticity with some individuals adapting to city life while others are displaced. A key trait that can facilitate adaptation is the degree at which animals respond to stressors. This stress response, which includes elevation of baseline circulating concentrations of glucocorticoids, has a heritable component and exhibits intra- and inter-individual variation. However, the mechanisms behind this variability and whether they might be responsible for adaptation to different environments are not known. Variation in DNA methylation can be a potential mechanism that mediates environmental effects on the stress response, as early-life stressors increase glucocorticoid concentrations and change adult phenotype. We used an inter- and intra-environmental cross-foster experiment to analyse the contribution of DNA methylation to early-life phenotypic variation. We found that at hatching, urban house wren (Troglodytes aedon) offspring had higher methylation frequencies compared with their rural counterparts. We also observed age-related patterns in offspring methylation, indicating the developmental effects of the rearing environment on methylation. At fledgling, differential methylation analyses showed that cellular respiration genes were differentially methylated in broods of different origins and behavioural and metabolism genes were differentially methylated in broods of different rearing environments. Lastly, hyper-methylation of a single gene (CNTNAP2) is associated with decreased glucocorticoid levels and the rearing environment. These differential methylation patterns linked to a specific physiological phenotype suggest that DNA methylation may be a mechanism by which individuals adjust to novel environments during their lifespan. Characterizing genetic and environmental influences on methylation is critical for understanding the role of epigenetic mechanisms in evolutionary adaptation.