Epigenetics, the transgenerational transfer of phenotypic characters without modification of gene sequence, is a burgeoning area of study in many disciplines of biology. However, the potential impact of this phenomenon on the physiology of animals is not yet broadly appreciated, in part because the phenomenon of epigenetics is not typically part of the design of physiological investigations. Still enigmatic and somewhat ill defined is the relationship between the overarching concept of epigenetics and interesting transgenerational phenomena (e.g. 'maternal/parental effects') that alter the physiological phenotype of subsequent generations. The lingering effect on subsequent generations of an initial environmental disturbance in parent animals can be profound, with genes continuing to be variously silenced or expressed without an associated change in gene sequence for many generations. Known epigenetic mechanisms involved in this phenomenon include chromatin remodeling (DNA methylation and histone modification), RNA-mediated modifications (non-coding RNA and microRNA), as well as other less well studied mechanisms such as self-sustaining loops and structural inheritance. In this review we: (1) discuss how the concepts of epigenetics and maternal effects both overlap with, and are distinct from, each other; (2) analyze examples of existing animal physiological studies based on these concepts; and (3) offer a construct by which to integrate these concepts into the design of future investigations in animal physiology.
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