Parental effects are a major source of phenotypic plasticity. Moreover, there is evidence from studies with a wide range of species that the relevant parental signals are influenced by the quality of the parental environment. The link between the quality of the environment and the nature of the parental signal is consistent with the idea that parental effects, whether direct or indirect, might serve to influence the phenotype of the offspring in a manner that is consistent with the prevailing environmental demands. In this review we explore recent studies from the field of 'environmental epigenetics' that suggest that (1) DNA methylation states are far more variable than once thought and that, at least within specific regions of the genome, there is evidence for both demethylation and remethylation in post-mitotic cells and (2) that such remodeling of DNA methylation can occur in response to environmentally-driven, intracellular signaling pathways. Thus, studies of variation in mother-offspring interactions in rodents suggest that parental signals operate during pre- and/or post-natal life to influence the DNA methylation state at specific regions of the genome leading to sustained changes in gene expression and function. We suggest that DNA methylation is a candidate mechanism for parental effects on phenotypic variation.
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