The Organism-Environment Interface

How Epigenetics Can Help Us Understand the Impacts of Climate Change

By Rachel Morgan, PhD Student in Environmental Health Sciences at University of Michigan School of Public Health, and UWM Zilber School of Public Health alumna

Published December 9, 2019

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression without changes to the underlying DNA sequence. You can think of your genome as the hardware of a computer. A computer has the capability to create and modify a file containing text. Your epigenome is the software. While a computer may have this capability, it is the word processing program that dictates when, where, and how that document is modified. While the underlying genomic instructions are important, it is the epigenomic software that utilizes these instructions at the proper place and time.

As individual epigenetic processes work in concert to ensure proper development and function, environmental stimuli can modify epigenetic mechanisms and subsequently change how our genomes function.1 The epigenomes of all organisms are thought to be much more responsive to environmental conditions than our genomes, which is why this field is of importance when we consider the dramatic changes in our environment, including those we are experiencing with climate change.

Numerous aspects of climate change can impact epigenetic factors. And as the climate changes, we will identify new influences that we will need to address.

Temperature is an important epigenetic factor both on land and in water systems. Rising water temperatures mean less dissolved oxygen is available to fish. As a result, several fish species have experienced changes in their epigenome.2,3 Changes in ocean salinity and acidity—both closely linked to water temperature—place a great amount of stress on corals, which are an important habitat for many marine species and have also been shown to adapt via their epigenomes.4,5 As fish size and population numbers decrease to adapt, these changes in water temperature and habitat could have serious repercussions for food systems that depend on or involve fish. Entire oceanic ecosystems are changing in response to climate change, and these changes can be traced, at least in part, to the modified epigenomes of the organisms that live within them…

Read the full article on the University of Michigan web site.