Heredity (2010) 105, 113–121; doi:10.1038/hdy.2010.25; published online 24 March 2010

Epigenomic plasticity within populations: its evolutionary significance and potential

L J Johnson1 and P J Tricker1

1School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, UK

Correspondence: Dr LJ Johnson, School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, Lyle Building, Whiteknights Campus, Reading RG6 6BX, UK. E-mail:

Received 14 December 2009; Revised 27 January 2010; Accepted 11 February 2010; Published online 24 March 2010.



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.


epigenetics; population genomics; canalisation; capacitance



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